Ping Fu is the founder of 3D software pioneer Geomagic and a true believer in the transformative power of 3D technology. 3D Systems announced plans to acquire Geomagic earlier this month, and now Fu serves as the conglomerate’s chief strategy officer as well. Also this month, Fu published Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, a powerful, deeply personal memoir that chronicles her life in China as a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a U.S. immigrant, and later, a successful entrepreneur, visionary, and technology advisor to President Obama. It’s an inspiring, moving book about personal resilience, the value of vulnerability, and the power of making. It deserves a wide audience.
Choose virtually any chapter of Fu’s life and it reads like an epic. Taken from her family by Mao’s Red Guards when she was just 8 years old, she was forced to live in squalor in a reeducation camp, where she had to care for her 4-year-old sister far from her comfortable life in Shanghai. For 10 years she endured hunger, physical abuse, public humiliation, loneliness, and a brutal sexual assault at the age of 10. But as the tyranny of Mao’s Cultural Revolution eased, she began to work in factories, where she learned electronics at a young age. Later, she was allowed to apply to university and was just one of a fraction of applicants accepted in a country that had banned academics for a decade. She went on to become the editor of a literary magazine, but was branded a counter-revolutionary because of an article published in the journal deemed critical of the Communist Party. Already blacklisted, two years later she wrote her senior thesis on China’s “one family, one child” rule and the female infanticide that resulted. Her thesis fell into the hands of the press and the story of infant deaths became an international outrage that exposed China’s human rights violations.
For that, she was whisked away to a stinking cell with bound wrists and a black bag over her head. She was released, but later told by officials that she had to leave China. She was exiled.
Leaving her family, she flew to the United States and arrived in Albuquerque, N.M. with just $80 and three words of English: “hello,” “thank you,” and “help.” From that point, she put herself through school as a maid and waitress, entered the then-new field of computer programming, and climbed to the top of the industry. Among other things, she worked on the team that created NCSA Mosaic, later known as Netscape. Ultimately, she founded her own company and rescued it from the brink of bankruptcy.
Whew. That’s quite a life, and as Bend, Not Break makes clear, Fu is quite a woman. Written with unflinching candor about her personal life, China, and corporate America, Fu’s strength seems to come from the words of Taoist wisdom her father imparted to her in the happy days in Shanghai before Mao. The advice is where the book gets its title: Bend, not break. It’s also clear that she’s a keenly intelligent, adaptable, and humble woman. The book reads as a series of episodes in which Fu tackles one challenge after the other. In spite of what are always long odds, she prevails again and again, even taking setbacks like her husband’s abandonment, low employee moral, lawsuits, and other body blows as opportunities to learn and grow. This perspective adds up to passages like this:
Life has been messy for me, as it has for most people. I have come to the realization that challenging experiences break us all at some point — our bodies and minds, our hearts and egos. When we put ourselves back together, we find that we are no longer perfectly straight, but rather bent and cracked. Yet it is through these cracks that our authenticity shines. It is by revealing these cracks that we can learn to see and be seen deeply.
In China, she told me, making and craftsmanship are highly revered, and under Mao, factory jobs were prized. Her experience working in Mao’s factories planted a seed in her mind that sprouted when she sought to create her own company. Rather than launch another internet-based business as was the rage at the time, she wanted to connect software to the physical world. That was her vision for Geomagic and 3D technology.
“I was a maker all along,” she says.
She believes that 3D printers are a revolutionary technology that’s even greater than the personal computer because at its essence, it is about making things.
“We all grew up making things. That to me is more natural [than using a PC].”
3D Systems’ moves to acquire Geomagic were too recent to make it into the book. But in characteristic candor, she says she was reluctant to sell the company, but investors wanted a payout and she felt the timing was right to merge Geomagic’s software with 3D Systems’ reach to finally realize her goal of “democratizing” manufacturing through on-demand, mass customization, and locally based production that can “unleash” individual makers and small and medium-sized manufacturers while large-scale manufacturing fades away. She writes:
It is possible to interrupt the cycle of painful and often shortsighted outsourcing that many people still accept as the the inevitable outcome of globalization. Instead, we will move increasingly toward a modern version of localization, with local production marked by a global interconnectedness and accessibility.
“I finally feel that is becoming real,” she says.