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Bend, Not Break: Leadership Lessons For Resilience Amid Struggle

Ping Fu, CEO of 3-D software company Geomagic, has also been a prisoner of Mao's Red Guard, a kidnapping victim, and an immigrant with $80 to her name. Here's how her unique past influenced her leadership style.

Image: Jonathan Fredin

When you speak with Ping Fu, the cofounder and CEO of 3-D software company Geomagic, you may not realize just how remarkable she is. Her company profile is impressive—Inc. named her "Entrepreneur of the Year" in 2005, she had a role in the creation of NCSA Mosaic (the forerunner of Netscape), and sits on President Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship—but is nothing wholly unusual as far as accolades go. She passionately discusses her commitment to a future where everything is produced locally and individually, and, like most other entrepreneurs, the hardships she overcame on the way to success.

But when Ping talks about difficulties, she isn’t referencing the lean times before Geomagic began to prosper. She’s describing growing up in the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution and being repeatedly raped and beaten by Mao’s Red Guard, all because she had the misfortune of being born into a well-educated family, a history she recounts in her recent book, Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds.

Ping, in the bottom row, second from the right along with the other children forced to live in government dormitories during China's Cultural Revolution. Image: Courtesy of Ping Fu.

Mao’s death improved Ping's lot, but her trials were not over yet. Her thesis on China’s one-child policy prompted China’s official press to comment for the first time on the increasingly common female infanticide in rural areas. Ping's research instigated an international controversy, leading to her imprisonment and exile.

At 25, Ping fled to the United States with $80 in her pocket. Kidnapped shortly after arriving in Albuquerque, Ping shouted one of the three English phrases she knew—"help"—through a barred window for days.

Ping's book details her path from factory worker to the successful CEO of a company that is moving the world towards a custom-made future. Fast Company recently spoke with Ping to learn how her unique past has influenced her leadership at Geomagic, and where she's taking the company next.

FAST COMPANY: How has surviving so many dangerous situations influenced your entrepreneurial risk-taking?

PING FU: I actually don’t think of myself as a risk taker—I think of myself as a risk mitigator. If you know how to mitigate risks, it gives you more ability to take risks. One mistake can kill a smaller company. You need to understand how to prepare yourself so that when there are risks, you know how to mitigate them

I remember somebody was talking to me about mountain climbing. They said the one who is most fit to survive is not the strongest one, but the one who is the best prepared.

You’ve said that an entrepreneur works for everyone but himself. Is this still how you view leadership?

A long time ago, when I studied computer science, I thought I wasn’t a particularly great programmer. I loved to work with other people who were better than me. I promoted their skill sets, I tried to pull them together, I served them for the better outcome of the project.

At the time, I thought it was a survival skill because I didn’t have a technical background as deep as my colleagues. Today, I realize what I did is servant leadership. Focusing on a better outcome for your team, promoting your teammates, working with people who are smarter than you—all are leadership qualities that are needed to lead a company with ever increasing growth.

Inside the Geomagic technology lab in North Carolina. Image: Jonathan Fredin.

How do you apply servant leadership at Geomagic?
I love to see other people shine. I want them to know that they can make decisions and they can make wrong decisions—they can make mistakes and that’s okay.

I want to enable people so that they can grow, they can contribute, and they can feel a sense of relevance. I want to create an environment where people really love what they do and enjoy working with each other.

I get so happy and I get chills in my spine when people love working together. I don’t want people to even notice I’m there, but notice the environment I’m creating, the work that they are doing, and the company.

In Bend, Not Break, you talk about finding a balance between your former life in China and your new one in America. Does your leadership style draw more on one culture more than another?

I love in between spaces—art meets science, handcraftsmanship meets IT technology. I love the difference between China and America. In between is where I think opportunity lies.

What Geomagic does is kind of like that—we are in between the digital world and the physical world. We translate one to another fluently. Innovation doesn’t happen in silos. Innovation happens when several technologies or several social movements come together. Maybe me living in two worlds—being in China and the United States—has made me comfortable in the in between.

Designed by Janne Kyttanen of 3D Systems, these shoes utilize 3-D printing and include a pocket for your iPhone. Image: Courtesy of Ping Fu.

In response to a talk Thomas Friedman gave about his book The World Is Flat, you joked, "The world isn’t flat. It’s 3-D." Why do we live in a 3-D world—and what’s next?

I don’t know who created Earth, but it’s 3-D—we’re not flat—that’s what we’re stuck with! We live in a 3-D world. We are 3-D creatures. So it’s just natural that us humans want to move to the next level. Once we can provide technology for a 3-D world—once we can go in and out of our own environment digitally or in reality seamlessly—something big will happen. This is the very first time that we humans can start to interact with 3-D data, which is the true reality data in our daily lives.

In the future, everything that we use can be locally fabricated, but designed anywhere. That means manufacturing jobs could come back here, service jobs can be very local. Shoes will be made to fit our feet, not our feet searching for a pair of shoes that fits. Much of what we use every day will change.

It also means being more green. We won’t ship a lot of things across the sea. There will be less carbon footprint. It will be faster and more customized. It’s the third industrial revolution coming.

What’s next for Geomagic?
When I started Geomagic, our vision was to advance and apply 3-D technology for the benefit of humanity. That vision has not changed. We are going to continue to innovate, advance, continue to serve solutions to people, apply, we are always in 3-D technology space, and we are aimed at the benefit for humanity. Anything that can benefit from lifesaving to lifestyle, we want to contribute. And that’s what’s in the past—and what’s in the future.

This prosthetic leg was created with Geomagic software and designed by Scott Summit of Bespoke Innovation. Image: Eva Kolenko.

Do you have a favorite piece of leadership advice?
Think about moving forward rather than up. A lot of times, people think leadership is about moving up, which is a) very, very hard and b) very limited. There is an unlimited road ahead of us, but there’s not an unlimited high we can reach.

Also, I found in my career that it is better to be clear than to be right. A lot of times, I find leaders want to be right and they think being right is what gains respect. I find being clear is what gains respect—if you’re clearly wrong, people can correct you, and if you’re clearly right, people can follow you.

How do you maintain resolve in tough times?
As a leader, you need to know who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing. I am very comfortable with who I am after going through all the "nobody" to "somebody." I know I am precious. I know that I am here for a purpose. I know that I love my job whether or not anybody loves me.

Knowing who I am allows me to not take myself too seriously. When you’re comfortable with your own skin you can be humorous with yourself. You can think that even if you die the Earth is going to turn.

Knowing fundamentally why I do what I do really helps me center myself. That’s why our vision statement is so important to me and that’s why it’s never changed. It doesn’t phase me when one very tough situation comes because I know why I started the company.

One of the things I like to tell people is I cannot control what happens around the world or even what life brings to me. But what I can control is how I feel about it. If I can design my day and my experience, then it doesn’t really matter what happens.

*This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.