It's not unusual to be inspired by something you see at a technology conference. Typically, the inspiration comes from being awed by some new gadget or application that has the potential to change our lives.
Sometimes, though, the inspiration comes from the people around us. Such was the case for me at Dell World 2012 in December. Sure, there was nifty technology aplenty. But the real inspiration for me came in the form of a soft-spoken woman wearing the coolest shoes ever. Her name is Ping Fu, and she was the guest of honor during a Women in Technology luncheon hosted by Dell CMO Karen Quintos.
The story of Ping Fu -- founder and CEO of 3D imaging and design company Geomagic -- is about one human being's ability to thrive after surviving nearly unimaginable adversity. While her story was told during a lunch for women in technology, Ping Fu's experiences and achievements defy all boundaries of culture, age, and gender.
Ping Fu described for her audience some of the experiences detailed in her memoir, Bend, Not Break (Penguin Books, December 2012). At age eight, during China's Cultural Revolution, she was separated from her family in Shanghai and returned to Nanjing, the place of her birth. With no parents around to help her, she was forced to live in a dormitory, taking care of herself as well as her four-year-old sister.
Her childhood ordeal is gut wrenching. She was subjected to daily verbal and physical abuse and was gang-raped at age 10. Despite being removed from formal K-12 education at age eight, Ping Fu was able to attend university, where her research ultimately led her to report on the widespread female infanticide that resulted from the nation's one-child policies. The research -– which she says sparked international attention -- got her thrown into prison and then exiled from China.
Landing in San Francisco at age 25 with $80 and no English, Ping Fu attempted to make her way to Albuquerque, where she had been accepted into a program at the University of New Mexico. While some of that journey was aided by the kindness of strangers, Ping Fu crossed paths with a predator at the Albuquerque airport.
A man who spoke Mandarin offered her a ride. Instead of taking her to the university, as he had promised, he kidnapped her and locked her in his apartment with his children, where they were left alone for days without food. A neighbor, hearing her shouts for help, eventually called the police and she was freed.
If you're like me, by now you're thinking: "If I had survived all that, I'd probably be amazed if I could even manage to go to a job every day, put food on the table, and have a safe place to live. I'd spend my spare time watching Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo on TV."
Not so. Ping Fu's inspirational life story was just getting started.
Before co-founding Geomagic, Ping Fu was Director of Visualization at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, where she initiated and managed the NCSA Mosaic software project that led to Netscape and Internet Explorer. She has more than 20 years of software industry experience in database, networking, geometry processing, and computer graphics. Oh, and did I mention she's also a single mom?
Can you live with chaos?
Ping Fu's unique perspective led her to found Geomagic in 1997. "I always loved in-betweens," she said during her Dell World 2012 presentation, describing her fascination with the spaces where science and art come together. "I thought, why not create a technology that could make content that could be printed" exactly as people wished it to be, she explained.
Initially, though, Ping Fu lacked the confidence to run the company herself, and hired an experienced tech executive as CEO. In two years, he had spent the $2.5 million in venture capital that she had raised, and left the company in ruins. Ping Fu said she retained the intellectual property, sold her house to keep the company afloat, laid off all the salespeople, kept all the engineers, and asked them to give her three months to find new venture capital. "If I couldn't, I told them, they would be paid first."
To her surprise, she said, they stuck with her. She took over as the company's CEO, got enough funding to keep the company afloat, and hired a VP of sales and a VP of engineering.
"One thing I learned was confidence," said Ping Fu. "When I saved the company, I realized I can do this just as well as anyone. There is nothing missing in me."
Ping Fu said the experience also taught her that "If you want to hold people together you have to have a culture. You have to give your company a moral compass. I wanted to build a company where you come in in the morning and you love what you do. People wanted to work for us."
She added, "Not every company has a pay-it-forward attitude, but you can tell when a company has it."
Another important lesson: "It's not only about helping others, it's about asking for help. Vulnerability is not a weakness. Vulnerability is a strength. It's the growth place for love."
Ping Fu said she's often asked how she balances being a single mother and a CEO. "I don’t do balance," she said. "Harmony is a better word. We are human beings. Human beings are messy. We live in chaos. The question is, 'Can you live with chaos?'"
She dismisses any notion of a glass ceiling for women in tech:
If you do believe in a glass ceiling, just avoid it. It's about moving forward, rather than moving up. Behind every closed door is an open space. If you're moving forward, there is no limit. The earth is round. If you only want to go up, you stay on one peak, and one peak only. If you are on a mountain and want to get to the next peak, you have to go down first to get back up to that next peak.
Ping Fu and Geomagic are continuing that forward momentum. On January 3, 3D Systems announced that it had signed a definitive agreement to acquire the Rock Hill, S.C.-based Geomagic. When the deal closes, which is expected in first quarter 2013, Ping Fu will take on a new role as the combined company's Chief Strategy Officer.
In a prepared statement announcing the deal, Ping Fu said:
We have worked with 3D Systems for many years to accelerate adoption of 3D content-to-print solutions and believe that now is the right time to combine our efforts to further democratize access to design and 3D printing. Joining 3D Systems provides us with the scale, resources and strategic platform to realize our shared vision of delivering functional, affordable and extensible 3D authoring solutions for the benefit of professional designers and engineers, as well as the exciting maker movement.
Speaking of the maker movement, those fantastic shoes Ping Fu wore at Dell World were custom-made for her feet by a small Dutch firm, Freedom of Creation, using Geomagic's 3D modeling software. NASA, New Balance, Schneider Electric, and Timberland are among the other companies using Geomagic's technology.
I hope hearing about Ping Fu's experiences and life lessons will inspire you as much as it did me. It's certainly made me re-examine many preconceived ideas about life and career. Her statement "There is nothing missing in me" particularly hit a nerve.
What about you? When was the last time you asked someone for help? Have you focused your energy on moving upward, or on moving forward? Are you able to live with chaos?