Entrepreneur Ping Fu

Fu, co-founder and CEO of the software company Geomagic, recounts her unusual journey to becoming a successful entrepreneur.

A self-described artist and scientist "whose chosen expression is business," Ping Fu realized the American dream in her journey to entrepreneurship. She came to the U.S. after being jailed in her native China, fleeing its cultural revolution under Mao and unable to speak much English. She studied computer science and began to gain software industry experience, including managing a software project that led to Netscape and Internet Explorer. She went on to co-found a leading U.S. software company, Geomagic. Fu promotes entrepreneurship and women in mathematics and sciences and tells her story of resilience in her autobiography, Bend, Not Break.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Starting a successful company is never easy, but it certainly must have seemed impossible to Ping Fu. As a child growing up in China under Mao, she was separated from her family and sent to a forced labor camp, where she endured unspeakable hardship.

In 1984 she made her way to the U.S. with $80 in her pocket and just three English words in her vocabulary: “Hello,” “Thank you,” and my favorite – “Help.”

Against all odds she found her way into software, indeed starting her own software company called Geomagic, a 3D technology company that she continues to lead as its CEO.

The new book about what is truly a remarkable journey is called “Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds.” Ping Fu, an honor to have you on this program.

Ping Fu: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Tavis: Thank you for your time. Let me start where this all began. When you were eight they came to get you, but tell me what life was like, what you recall of life before Mao’s Cultural Revolution and you heard that knock on the door. What was life like in the first eight years of life?

Fu: Oh, that was wonderful. I was living with my Shanghai papa and mama. They were the most loving parents I could have had, and I was the youngest one of six out of five siblings, and they played with me all the time. I was in the kitchen. My mom, like, loves to cook wonderful meals, and she always say she puts a lot of love in her food.

Tavis: So you’re eight in China. Mao’s revolution is in full swing. Your family gets that dreaded knock at the door. Take it from there.

Fu: Yeah. Things already started going bad a little bit, and my Shanghai papa was locked up. So I knew something’s happening; I was too young. But one day I heard this loud noise and the boots marching through our backyard. Then I heard my mom crying, saying, “She’s so little.”

I was in the library on the third floor, and I looked out and I saw the Red Guards marching in, and they said, “She’s there,” and I knew it was they came for me. They took me and that was the first day they told me that my Shanghai papa and mama was not my birth parents, and my Shanghai mama said, “Yes, that’s true. Don’t fight.”

I was screaming and kicking and saying, “You’re lying, you’re lying. Last week you told me I was your favorite,” and I was taken away without even being able to give her a hug.

Tavis: That sounds like a double trauma; the first trauma being that of being taken away, the second trauma being told that your Shanghai mom, Shanghai dad, were not your parents. How does an eight-year-old process all of that at the same time?

Fu: Well, it happened so quickly, and then I was put on this jam-packed train with strangers and children are crying. At that point I knew I was going to Nanjing to be with my birth parents. All I wanted is to be with somebody, because I didn’t like to be alone and it was too confusing.

But when I arrived in Nanjing I just arrived a little too late when my Nanjing parents were put on a truck to be taken away also. So one day I lost the parents who raised me and parents who bore me.

Tavis: So at eight, you’re on the way to Nanjing, you think that you’re going to be with your parents. When you get there, they’ve been placed on another train; they’re already gone. So what happens?

Fu: There was a lot of chaos going on, and then a few hours later I was taken to this dormitory, which is the old student college dormitory, emptied out. Students all went home. Looked like a garbage can, literally. I was led to this room, and in there I found my little sister, who was only four years old.

Tavis: Let me back up for a second. I know we’re on PBS and this is a very learned audience, but not everybody understands what Mao’s Cultural Revolution was all about, what his modus operandi was, what his intent was. It occurs to me I should back up just to make sure that we’re all on the same page here for people to get a better understanding of what the Cultural Revolution was all about.

Fu: Right. So Mao sort of lost the power a few years before Cultural Revolution due to the famine that he created, and Cultural Revolution was his way to regain the power, kind of use Stalin’s method of fear, killing.

He turned the country upside-down and told us that we don’t need to go to formal education, we all need to learn from farmers and soldiers and workers, and that’s how we get re-educated. Cultural Revolution is the biggest prosecution of educated families.

Tavis: So at eight years old you end up in a dormitory and you’re looking out, basically, for your little sister at the age of eight. So take me back to that dormitory and tell me how life sort of begins anew for you in this camp, as it were.

Fu: Yeah. At the beginning it was really confusing and scary, because we didn’t have food. The room has no wash basin, no kitchen facility, nothing, and we were taken to the soccer field to witness the killing of teachers, and we were brainwashed that we were nobody and we were born black, we were born with black blood. Our parents were called “black elements” and we were all bastards of black elements.

Tavis: What becomes your daily routine when you were eight years old – eight, nine, 10?

Fu: Yeah, so first few months was just chaos. We go through bitter meals, struggle (unintelligible) we go scream that we were nobody. Then I think it’s about a year later I was assigned to work in a factory. Some of the older kids got sent to countryside, but I was too young to do that.

So I went to factory to build radios and speedometers, and then later I learned how to be an electrician, and just manual work.

Tavis: So when you’re nine or 10, to your point, you’re working in the factory, but as I read in your book, that’s a lot better for you. The experience of doing that is better for you in part, you argue in the book, because at least you’re doing something for the benefit of somebody else.

But tell me how you processed being in that factory as a nine, 10-year-old, working on radios, et cetera.

Fu: Well, being told that I was nobody and then going to a factory, the workers are grownups, so they are actually quite kind to me. Radio is such a thing that we all have at home, because the communists always broadcasting their messages.

So being able to, like, turn on the first radio that we build, and knowing that I can actually make that and that’s the one that’s being used by everybody, I feel a sense of accomplishment at that age, yeah.

Tavis: At such a young age, who was nurturing you? I’m trying to imagine eight, nine, 10, and you’re building radios and you’re taking care of your little sister, both sets of your parents are gone. An eight-year-old, nine-year-old, you’re still a baby, you’re a child, and children need to be nurtured and loved and held. Who’s doing that for you during this period?

Fu: Well, there wasn’t any. There wasn’t any nurturing. There were other people around, there’s other kids who don’t have parents, and then there will be communist families where the family come from (unintelligible), supposedly.

I see them have parents, but only thing I have is the memory of my Shanghai papa and mama, the first eight years where I did have a very loving family. Otherwise, there was just nobody there to give you a hug or make food for you (crosstalk).

Tavis: What did you eat, how did you eat, what was your source of nutrition?”

Fu: Oh, God, we ate bad stuff. Sometimes we eat bitter meal. That’s just occasionally. Otherwise, I dig a lot of vegetable from the ground, called wild vegetable. We have so many kids, some kids are bigger than me, and then we all tell each other.

Even today I look for those wild vegetables. They’re really good, actually. Really, I raise chicken, so I have some eggs. Otherwise, there’s very little meat. I don’t remember having much meat at all.

Tavis: Yeah. How long does this experience – how long are you forced to endure this Maoist experience?

Fu: The Cultural Revolution lasted for 10 years plus two. I was alone about the first five years. Then my mom came back when I was 13. Four or five years later it did get a little better. It loosened up a little, and then in ’72, when Nixon visited China with ping-pong diplomacy and Deng Xiaoping briefly came back, it got further better. So the first few years, like four or five years, is probably the worst.

Tavis: I want to fast-forward, because you end up doing some work to expose another atrocity in the People’s Republic of China as it relates specifically to the one-child policy.

Take me from the camp where you were held during the Cultural Revolution, advance me a few years to your working on the writings about the one-child policy.

Fu: So the Cultural Revolution ended in 19 -

Tavis: ’7?

Fu: – ’76.

Tavis: Right.

Fu: Yeah. Then university starts in 1977. I went into college in ’78, when my father came back. I didn’t have any choice what to study. I wanted to be astronaut, but I ended up to study Chinese literature, because that was assigned major for me.

Before graduation, I decided to do humanitarian topic for my thesis research. I heard in the countryside that girls are being killed or there’s forced abortion in very late terms due to the one-child policy.

One-child policy is every couple can only have one child. China was still 95 percent agriculture at that time. Farmers want boys. So I went to do that research, and then I turned my research to my teacher. She gave it to a friend at newspaper, where her friends is editor. So they wrote an editorial basically called stopping the gender inequality or killing. It was a good editorial coverage.

Little did I know that was the very first time Chinese newspaper admitted that was happening. That’s what got me in trouble, and I got thrown in jail for that.

Tavis: It’s bad enough that under Mao’s Cultural Revolution as a child you’re basically incarcerated, as it were, told what to do, when to come, where to go. So you’ve already dealt with this once in life.

Now the revolution’s over, you get a chance to go to college. You write about this inhumane activity, and you end up back in jail again for doing this. How did you process that?

Fu: It was really sad. I saw my life just turned around. Why now? I thought I was going to get killed, but I didn’t know what’s going to happen with my life, and I just started to love what I was doing in college.

But then my sister got older by then. I thought maybe it’s okay if I die. I don’t have responsibility anymore like when she was little. But it was very sad.

Tavis: So you get thrown in jail for writing about the inhumanity of this one-child policy and what’s happening to girls all throughout China. Ultimately at some point they tell you or you discover that you’re not going to be put to death, but you are getting kicked out of here.

Fu: Right.

Tavis: So we’re not going to kill you, but you’ve got to get out of China.

Fu: Right. I was asked to leave quietly.

Tavis: Right.

Fu: At the time, I didn’t know. Now I knew because there was an American journalist who wrote about the same thing, and published a book in 1983 called “Broken Earth.” His book and my research at the same year was a coincidence.

But it formed a perfect storm for international outcry for human rights violations. So China’s new government was embarrassed by what’s being revealed, and accidentally they actually validated that claim.

So killing me is only going to cause more trouble, so I was asked to leave and never come back again. Do not apply for political asylum. Just go be a student and start your life somewhere else.

Tavis: That somewhere else was where?

Fu: Well, “somewhere else” luckily happened to be United States.

Tavis: Where specifically?

Fu: I got a visa from University of New Mexico, and then I flew to San Francisco with $80 travelers checks in my pocket. When I landed I was $5 short for the ticket, and this American man behind me gave $5 to the counter so I could buy my ticket. That was my first impression of American – that people are generous and helpful here to new immigrants.

Tavis: So that extra $5 got you from San Francisco to New Mexico.

Fu: Right.

Tavis: But when you get here your English isn’t so good.

Fu: No.

Tavis: Yeah.

Fu: I tried to learn more, but I couldn’t remember anything. By the time I landed I only remembered three words.

Tavis: Yeah. So you sojourn to New Mexico and knowing so little English when you get to Mexico – it’s one thing you don’t have any money, but you can’t even speak the language. So when you get to New Mexico, what happens? How do you navigate your way through? How do you get around? How do you make all this work?

Fu: Right. So first I studied English as a second language, and I knew unlike immigrants who come here and have connections to the homeland, I knew I couldn’t go back, so I have to stay here. I stayed with my English teacher so that I can learn more English quickly.

Then I observed that my English teacher couldn’t find a job, having a Ph.D. in literature. (Laughter) I saw that (unintelligible).

Tavis: That’s not funny, but it is, yeah.

Fu: It was, yes. So I thought I was going to study comparative literature, and I didn’t have enough English, either, so I thought, okay, I’m going to have to study something with a marketable skill.

Tavis: Right.

Fu: So I asked someone what can I study since I didn’t do formal education, I didn’t have math and science. Someone said, “Well, check out this new field called computer science,” and I said, “What’s that?” He said, “It’s manmade language, and you use it to make stuff.”

I was like, “Great. I’m good with language and I know how to make stuff.” That’s what I was going to study. So fortunately that was a great up-rising new field.

Tavis: Yeah. What do you make, looking back on it now, on how that just came to be that the burgeoning growth of computer technology just happened to coincide with your arriving here. Somebody suggested maybe you ought to try this.

I’m asking how you process that, because in a minute we’re going to go to all the great success you’ve had and why you’re now sitting on President Obama’s commission and committee. It’s quite a fascinating journey. What do you make looking back on the decision at that time when you could barely speak English, to study computer technology, computer science?

Fu: Well, what it taught me with that experience is that behind every closed door there’s new opportunity. It’s like every time life shut door, close on me, and I end up doing something else and there’s a new world opened up to me.

So in my experience I learned in my life journey many times when something that when it looks like there’s no road ahead of you, behind that mountain there’s another road. So if you try, you can always find a path.

Tavis: Just give me some key markers along the road, key decisions, key moments, that happened for you that have allowed you to get to this place of Geomagic once you left New Mexico.

Fu: Okay. Well, interesting, my key moments are all unconventional. First I met this entrepreneur in San Diego. I worked for him while I was studying computer science. Then I took a job at Bell Labs because it’s an iconic company in the United States. I took a pay cut from the startup job to the Bell Labs job in pursuit of innovation and education.

Then I got bored at Bell Labs. I took another job at university, again took a pay cut, because I saw that I was going to make the movie, “Terminator 2,” with Arnold, and so that was something I really wanted to do. It’s art and it’s science, it’s visual, and I would do that without being paid.

Now interestingly, at the startup company I did database, and at Bell Labs I did network, and at the national center, supercomputing center, I did graphics. Those three are what formed the basis for the Mosaic browser, which turned into Netscape and Internet Explorer, and Marc Andreessen was my student.

So being able to guide this group of students to create the first multimedia Internet browser comes from my trajectory of pursuing something that I’m interested, not necessarily a higher position or better pay.

Tavis: Yeah.

Fu: But it gives me that basis to do that.

Tavis: Given where you started, what do you make of being on the front side of the Internet browser, Netscape – these are terms now – Marc Andreessen is iconic, even at his young age now, in Silicon Valley. He was your student, but what do you make of how all this came to be, given where you started?

Fu: I think part of it, when I look at it, was that I was a nobody and I wanted to be somebody, and I didn’t know where to start. So I went this life journey of never trying to admit, or never agree to that I was nobody or I couldn’t do something.

But I also didn’t have a target, so I traversed my life in this unconventional way, just pursuing whatever I had passion, whatever I feel could contribute to society or this technology is going to be tomorrow’s technology.

So I pursued that, and that’s why I say life is a mountain range. At every peak the view is different, but for you to arrive to a different peak, sometimes you have to go down before you go up.

Here, a lot of time we don’t want to take a down step. We just want to keep going up, which there is nothing wrong with that, but you’re stuck at one peak and one view.

Tavis: Yeah, it’s anti-American to step down.

Fu: That’s right.

Tavis: Yeah, that’s our problem, but you’re right, you can’t get to that next peak without -

Fu: Without going -

Tavis: – the ebb and the flow, yeah. So tell me about your work at Geomagic these days.

Fu: Well, it’s very interesting, because when I started Geomagic I wanted to combine Internet technology with manufacturing. Makes sense, because I was working Internet and I came from manufacturing.

Idea was to change the manufacturing to what I call mass customization or personalized fabrication. So you see my shoe, this is a 3D-printed shoe. There’s 3D printing as a new technology for tomorrow’s manufacturing.

Tavis: Get that shoe, Jonathan. Go ahead, keep on talking, I’m sorry.

Fu: Then it’s molded to my feet, it’s a MOMA piece, it’s exhibited at the Modern Museum of Art in New York. Lightweight, material is biodegradable.

So my passion is about how can we change the things that I design and manufacture such that we can bring jobs back to our country, and it’ll be greener technology, so there’s not a lot of shipping across the seas. It’s less carbon footprint. So I think this is the next big thing.

Tavis: Yeah. I think I get it and I think the audience gets it now, but when you decided to call this book “Bend, Not Break,” what did you have in mind?

Fu: Resilience. Yeah. I think whether or not it’s entrepreneurship, whether or not it’s a country being divided or business is going through a difficult environment, that we need to build resilience in our system or in how we live.

Tavis: Yeah. I have been to China. I’ve had the honor of traveling to China many, many times now, but my very first trip I was taken by a friend of mine in New York who’s probably watching tonight named An Ping (sp), and after spending a week or two in China and having just been moved the very first time I went and learned so much, it was literally the last day of the trip I was sitting with An Ping.

We were sitting waiting on a plane to take off or something, traveling between Beijing and Shanghai, and I didn’t realize that she had grown up in that Cultural Revolution during the time of Chairman Mao.

After being there for all these days and learning so much, the most moving part of the entire trip was sitting there talking to her about what it was like trying to navigate and move through that period of history that you had to endure.

I’m so glad that An Ping got through it and I’m glad that you got through it, and I’m glad that you are doing the wonderful work that you’re doing now. Tell me quickly about your work with President Obama. You’re on this entrepreneurship committee?

Fu: Yeah, I’m on the advisory board for entrepreneurship and innovation, which are two topics very dear to my heart.

Tavis: Right.

Fu: So we meet quarterly to give advice on policy, how to remove barriers so that policy is more favorable for entrepreneurship and innovation, and we believe innovation is the key for us to create jobs in this country.

Tavis: Yeah. Life is funny, isn’t it? You start out being told that you are nobody, and you end up hanging out with the president of the United States a few years later.

Fu: Yeah.

Tavis: That’s funny.

Fu: So life has treated me well.

Tavis: Yeah. The book is called “Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds,” by Ping Fu, founder and CEO of Geomagic, Inc. Ping, good to have you on the program. All the best to you.

Fu: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for tuning in. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

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Last modified: February 3, 2013 at 2:09 pm