Ping Fu has made resilience an art form.
“Part of resilience is to give yourself permission to do what you need to do, and to forgive yourself when you need to,” she told her audience in the Deloitte Auditorium on November 11. Fu visited the College of Business to speak about her successes, “failing forward,” and advice to future entrepreneurs.
Fu, who earned her master’s degree in computer science at Illinois, has been at the forefront of innovative technology. During her career she has helped develop browser software at the advent of mainstream internet usage, CGI animation, and more recently, 3D printing software. She is now the vice president and chief strategy officer at 3D Systems Corporation.
Bend, Not Break
When Fu was a young girl in China, her father told her, “Bamboo is flexible. It bends in the wind, but never breaks. Your ability to thrive depends on your attitude. Take everything in stride with grace.”
“It’s as though he knew challenge awaited me,” she said.
Ping Fu grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China, where she was separated from her parents for several years. When she was eight years old, she remembers being led onto a stage and forced to scream at the top of her lungs that she was nobody. Schools were closed, and she worked in various jobs for most of her childhood.
When the revolution finally ended and schools began reopening, she became known as “the girl whose light never turned off” because she wanted to go to school. She studied hard, and eventually was accepted into Suzhou University to study Chinese literature. She had wanted to study aeronautics, but lacked the math and science education necessary to be accepted into that field of study.
As part of a research project she conducted for her thesis, Fu learned about the tragedies caused by China’s one-child policy, including widespread infanticide of female infants and abortion during late pregnancy. A newspaper editor published her research without giving her credit for it. The Chinese government told her to leave the country without graduating. She chose to move to the United States.
Err on the Side of Generosity
When she first arrived in the United States, the price on her domestic flight ticket had risen and she only had a cashier’s check in the exact amount of the original ticket price. A stranger in line behind her gave her the five dollars she needed to cover the newer ticket cost.
At that moment she learned that, when in doubt, she should err on the side of generosity.
After her English language skills improved, she decided to study computer science at the University of California, San Diego. This surprised people who knew she had been a literature student. However, she saw computer science as yet another language to conquer. “Instead of writing essays,” she said, “I was writing the code for the future not yet imagined.”
Fu earned her master’s degree in computer science at Illinois and stayed in the area to work for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). She told the audience that this was the best job she ever had. Taking the job meant a pay cut from her previous work, but she felt like she had found her calling.
Working at NCSA, she was involved with many innovative projects, including CGI animation for Terminator 2. This happened during a period of time when computer animation was very new and Hollywood needed the support of a high-tech computer facility to create the liquid metal effect of Terminator’s T-1000 robot.
She supervised a project to develop Mosaic, an early web browser that helped lead to the rise of the internet among mainstream computer users.
She began to see a string of personal successes and people told her that everything she touched turned to gold. In spite of this, she had difficulty processing success. She still felt brainwashed by the Cultural Revolution in which she grew up. In her mind, money and entrepreneurship were evil, and she was willing to keep working without a financial benefit.
A 1,000-Crane Idea
Shortly after she had decided that she was never going to start a business, Fu met Chuck Hall, the inventor of 3D printing. At that time (30 years ago), there was no software to create content for 3D printers. Fu decided that she would be the person to create that software.
This led to her founding Geomagic, a 3D software development company that builds free technologies to help users design and manufacture myriad items with 3D printers.
Fu told the audience that people have asked her how she knew when she was ready to start a business. She explained that she knew when her mind started working “like one thousand cranes.”
In Asia, the crane symbolizes health, longevity, and prosperity. Because the crane is only associated with good things, she felt like her idea could do no wrong. Eventually, Fu and her company were able to help NASA with a program to assure astronaut safety by printing parts needed to repair a shuttlecraft in the middle of its space flight.
After she had been taught as a little girl that she was nobody, and had not been able to study aeronautics and become an astronaut, this new success meant everything to Fu.
Fu firmly believes in living globally while making everything locally. 3D printers will play a major role in reducing the need for overseas manufacturing, Fu told the audience.
By making it possible for more people to make the tools they need, she explained, manufacturing can become hyper-local. Companies will not have to ship finished products overseas, but make them in the location where they are needed.
3D-printed items Fu has helped develop:
• casts for broken limbs
• custom foosball pieces
• space shuttle parts
• edible cakes
• hearing aids
• historical instruments based on period paintings
• custom-sized shoes—even with smartphone holsters
• prosthetic limbs that look like the real thing
“Innovation is not just about really high technology,” she explained. “Innovation is also about bringing people’s pride back to their lives. Innovation is imagination applied.”
Fu showed a demonstration video of a pair of 3D-printed high-heeled shoes being created on a printer similar to the MakerBot printers in the BIF MakerLab. She invited anyone interested to go to the lab and print their own custom shoes based on her design.
With technology, Fu is also working to preserve the past and bring it to the future by saving 3D images of historic monuments like Mount Rushmore and the Tower of Pisa.
Don’t Go Up: Go to the Mountains
Fu described the many different, sometimes disparate, things she has done in her career. “It is always a journey; it is never a destination,” she said.
“What really gives me joy is not to set a goal and try to reach that goal, but rather to be willing to fail forward—to be willing to go into the unknown. Because the unknown, that discovery, is what gives pleasure.”
Fu explained that she likes to think of success in terms of a mountain range rather than “going up.” One can “go up the corporate ladder” or hit a “glass ceiling” in English metaphors, but as Fu explained, you can’t get very far by going up, and it’s not very satisfying and can get really tiring.
Instead, if success is like a mountain range, you can’t get to another peak without first going down: “It gives me permission to fail.”
It also gives her the joy of discovering the view at another peak. “Give yourself permission to discover unknowns, and to go down and not view that as a failing,” she told the crowd. If it’s a failing at all, it should be considered a “failing forward” that could bring a richer life experience than one could ever imagine.
Know Your Why and What
How would Ping Fu encourage more girls to study math and science? Fu explained that it is important to serve as a good role model. “If girls don’t want to be you, it doesn’t matter what you say.” This philosophy has changed the way that Fu approaches technology when she talks to people.
One of the attendees asked Fu for her advice on incentivizing computer science education in the United States. Fu replied that the issue is not that the U.S. doesn’t have a lack of computer science graduates, but that the U.S. needs to do more to motivate them to stay in the U.S. workforce and focus on innovation.
She used an analogy of two bricklayers: When asked what they were doing, one bricklayer said, “I’m laying bricks.” The other said, “I’m building a cathedral.” They were both doing the exact same work, but the one building a cathedral was more likely to be happy about going to work each morning and feel greater job satisfaction.
Fu explained that analogy also applies to entrepreneurs who want to start a business. First, know the why and the what of your business: What is its purpose? In other words, you need to understand what it is you are doing before you proceed with action. If you don’t know why and what you’re doing (building a cathedral), then you are just going through the motions without a sense of purpose.
“Somebody is not going to hand you your why and your what,” Fu explained. “You have to find your own purpose and your direction.” More of Ping Fu’s life experiences and advice can be found in her memoir, Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds.