If you’re having a hard day, read Woman Entrepreneur Ping Fu’s story. She has had an intense journey from Chinese Exile to Inc Entrepreneur of the Year. She sold her 3D Printing Company, Geomagic, and has now been thrown into new headwinds.
Inc. Woman Entrepreneur of the Year 2005
“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” – Bruce Lee
BEND DON’T BREAK
China’s Cultural Revolution began when Ping Fu was 8. Her parents were sent for ‘re-education’ and she was left to look after her 4 year old sister. As Ping says “”Father and mother were taken to a local concentration camp. They were screaming my name. Then they disappeared.”
When soldiers threw Ping’s little sister in a pond to drown, she jumped in to save her, and the soldiers punished her by beating and raping her. She was 10.
Ping was forced to work and study in factories for 10 years, missing a school education. When the Cultural Revolution ended, as a university student Ping publicised the Chinese government’s killing of baby girls. She was forced to leave the country for the US with $80.
On arriving in the US at age 25, she was kidnapped for 3 days by a Vietnamese man who she met at the airport, before Police were called, and she was delivered to the University of New Mexico in a police squad car. With little English, she worked as a babysitter and cleaning lady to pay for her university degree in computer science.
As she says, “You get caught in a traffic jam and that’s a bad day? Put it in perspective.” With her memories of how hard things had been, she says “There aren’t many bad days here in comparison.”
In 1991, when Ping was 32, a friend came to her with a problem – How to digitally compute spaces in 3D? Ping remembered a Chinese Proverb “The empty space with a cup is what makes the cup useful.” She worked out the equations to shape the empty space with her husband, and in the process came across the new concept of 3D printing.
She got excited by what 3D printing could achieve in printing personalised products. As she recalls: “We’ll call it the Personal Factory,” “I told Mike Facello, (one of her first employees). “It’s intuitive. People already know the PC. Now we’ll have the PF.” “Cute, Ping,” he observed. “You’ve managed to name an industry after your own initials.”
FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS
The ‘Aha’ moment for her new business came from a dream that day, which went back to her childhood: “I was possessed by the idea of revolutionizing the manufacturing process, just as Henry Ford once had with his invention of the assembly line. That night when I fell asleep, I had a dream about the years I’d spent in factories in China.”
“I awoke the next morning with visions of spinning parts and shining metal floating through my head. I found that I could recall details about those years that I hadn’t been able to for decades. I thought to myself, No wonder I came up with the “personal factory” idea for my business. Working in factories had ingrained not just the knowledge but also the visceral experience of manufacturing into my brain and body.”
A LUXURY YOU CAN’T AFFORD: THE LUXURY OF DOUBT
Her company, Geomagic, launched, and her first printed product was a Pikachu Doll. But times were tough. In 2000, the money they had raised had run out, the tech bubble had burst, and Ping had the choice of closing Geomagic or battling it out. As she says: “All of my instincts kicked in,” she says. “In a crisis mode, you lose all self-doubt – at least I do. I couldn’t afford the luxury of doubt.”
She decided to focus at the dental industry with custom-fit crowns, and signed a $1.8m deal that saved the company. From there, the company and her success gradually took off. In 2005 she became Inc Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2010 Obama selected her to join his National Advisory Council for Entrepreneurship. In early 2013, she sold Geomagic and published her memoirs “Bend not Break”.
The book, which shares her story, is getting heavy criticism from Chinese critics for its portrail of China. She is being called a liar, interested only in self-promotion. How does she counter her ongoing challenges? By recalling her grand father:
“Shanghai Papa told me “There are three friends of winter: the pine tree, the plum blossom, and bamboo: Pine trees are strong. They remain happy and green throughout the year. In the unbearable heat of summer and the severe cold of winter, they stand unperturbed.””
“”The crimson petals of the plum blossom gleam brilliantly against the white snow. The ability to bloom in the midst of misfortune suggests dignity and forbearance under harsh circumstances.” Shanghai Papa then walked over to a grove of bamboo. “This is the third friend of winter. Bamboo is flexible, bending with the wind but never breaking, capable of adapting to any circumstance. It suggests resilience, meaning that we have the ability to bounce back from even the most difficult times.”
Shanghai Papa smiled and continued, “The Taoists understand that there can be no summer without winter, no ups without downs, no growth without decay. Your ability to thrive depends, in the end, on your attitude to your life circumstances. When you are like the three friends of winter, you take everything in stride with grace, putting forth energy when it is needed, yet always staying calm inwardly.”
When you look at the pressures on you today. Will you be the pine, the plum bossom or the bamboo? Will you bend or break? Take a tip from the Woman Entrepreneur – Ping, and remember that, whatever the winter, spring is just around the corner.
Featured image by Jonathan Fredin
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