There’s a half-hour interview slot available at the tail end of Ping Fu’s press day – set up to promote her newly published memoir. On our way to the interview room, I offer up some sympathetic platitude about how tired she must be, which is received without so much as the bat of an eyelid. Ping doesn’t promote work-life balance, I find out later – or see long hours as an obstacle to happiness. Nor does she go in for platitudes.
Instead, she peppers her speech with Eastern philosophical concepts, like ‘flow': “When you love what you do so much you forget about time. I really want people to think about whether they’re in flow with their career,” she says. She also challenges her employees to think about how meaningful the work they’re doing is, and whether they are complete as individuals. It’s not the line usually taken by senior management. “When I started saying this stuff 15 years ago, people were like, ‘Oh that’s just Ping’s social experiment’,” she says. They’re no longer so dismissive.
The agility implied in her memoir’s title – Bend, Not Break – may now be the modus operandi of leading-edge business, but it’s been part of Ping’s approach to life since she was a child. Snatched from her parents at the age of eight and taken to a labour camp in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, she found herself leaning heavily on Chinese proverbs for psychological protection. Force-fed dung and dirt, beaten and raped, with a young sister to care for, the only respite came from kindly strangers: pots of rice left outside her door, a carefully wrapped sweet, precious forbidden reading material – including Gone With the Wind – left by visiting relatives. She learned to adapt and survive, and always practised compassion, even volunteering to tutor the class bully until her taunting gave way to respect.
An educated target
Ping’s adoptive parents were highly educated, and therefore a key target for Mao’s Red Guard. When they got married, they asked for donations to a school fund instead of wedding presents. Ping’s memories of her childhood home are full of her grandfather’s extensive library – her favourite room in the house. When she finally made it to university (beating thousands of other hopefuls to a place) she wrote a thesis on the infanticide of daughters in rural China. This was widely circulated among Communist Party members, leading to problems with her application for a passport. It was only the kindness of a sympathetic official that guaranteed her safe passage to the US. She arrived in 1984, aged 25, with three English phrases and $80 to her name.
Ping admits reflecting on her own ‘nobodiness’ at that time. Despite being well into her adult life, she found herself struggling to reclaim some sense of self after abandoning it in a culture of extreme uniformity.
Today, Ping is the founder and CEO of Geomagic, a company pioneering the use of 3D imaging software. She’s been appointed to President Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (“Michelle [Obama] is lovely – she’s so authentic,” she says), and sits on the board of the Long Now Foundation, one of the bastions of future-thinking technologists, co-founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Forwards not upwards
Long Now exists to foster discussion about the far future, as a counterpoint to the reactionary, relatively short-term thinking prevalent in the mainstream. One of its current projects is a clock designed to tick for 10,000 years, buried deep in a rock somewhere in Texas. Ping was called in to map the clock’s tunnel. “They couldn’t believe how useful the data was,” she says. “We got talking and they just found me to be a kindred spirit.”
Ping also mentors female engineers and technicians, but she’s dismissive of the idea of the glass ceiling. “People say you need to work twice as hard [as men] to get a promotion. But you don’t need to work twice as hard, you just need to be a full person. I tell women to move forwards rather than upwards; making forward progress is a better metaphor.”
Success in authenticity
Too many women in the industry rely solely on their intellect, Ping believes, without developing their social self – but both are equally important. Similarly, she believes that a forced management approach does them a disservice.
“Much of the advice is to teach women how to behave like a man, which I am totally against. People should be authentic, leadership should be authentic,” she says. Showing vulnerability should also be on the leadership agenda. The memoir tells how, when a demonstration to a group of engineers uncovers a flaw in her product, Ping congratulates the customer on his perceptiveness instead of covering it up.
“I realised that we are not, nor should we be, the smartest people in the room,” she writes. Some time later, when faced with serious financial crisis, she levels with the company’s employees about the reality of the situation. Every one of them stays on to help her, in spite of the risk to their livelihoods.
Innovating to benefit humanity
Geomagic was founded with the aim of using 3D printing technology for the benefit of humanity – and that’s a vision the company still champions. Ping rallied together a team and together they created a piece of software that could scan and render any 3D object on screen, allowing tweaks and repairs to be designed digitally and printed locally. “The more I think about it the more excited I get, because you can not only bring jobs back [increasing local employment], you can build products that are personalised. You don’t have to ship them, so there’s a smaller carbon footprint; China doesn’t have to be the world’s dumping ground, and developed countries don’t have to lose the backbone of their economy.” The explosion of 3D printing makes it an auspicious time to be in this line of work, that’s for sure – but the forward-thinking Ping set up Geomagic 15 years ago.
“I’ve always had this curiosity, I’ve always been interested in tomorrow’s technology,” she says. “I’ve always liked in-between spaces – the ones that combine art with science, or internet technology with hand craftsmanship… Maybe it’s the Eastern philosophy, which says ‘empty space is more important than a wall’.”
Prior to founding Geomagic, Ping’s varied CV included motion graphics work on the hit science-fiction film Terminator 2 and contributing to the development of the world’s first web browser, Netscape. “It’s about solving problems,” she says. “If you don’t solve a problem then you [as a business] shouldn’t exist.”
The 3D Fixer
The problems Geomagic has solved are numerous. Its software is core to the production of Invisalign dental braces, which require a new set to be produced every two weeks as part of treatment, and it’s been used to mend NASA satellites. Damage to the vehicle is mapped out, and a perfectly sized puzzle piece is printed locally by a crew member. “Before this was done, they used glue guns! You have this big cradle, you go out into space to try and fill that hole with liquid, but space is cold – it freezes. There’s no guarantee you can fix it, and it takes hours.”
The same technology was even used to print a titanium plate for American journalist Bob Woodruff’s head after he was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq. I ask Ping how the advent of cloud technology will affect the work she’s doing. In terms of humanity, she says, the impact will be huge. “The limitation of human advancement has always been our brain. It’s the very first time that we can have millions of people working on the same problem, and can leverage that data to give us information our brain can’t think about.” Even GPS, she says, is a “simple brain”.
Some people might accuse this reliance on technology as a symptom of ‘dumbing down’, but Ping says it just frees up space for thinking about bigger problems. “World hunger problems, water problems, cancer… if we can free up our time not to work on repetitive things, we can work on the future.”
Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds is out now on Portfolio Penguin. Image credit: Jonathan Fredin.