Women in Science

Geomagic's Ping Fu Rises in Tech Firmament

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ping Fu survived China's Cultural Revolution and was later deported to the United States for her sensational reporting on female infanticide. Now she's one of the few women in the CEO ranks of commercially innovative technology.

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She survived rape, violence and malnutrition in China during Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong's "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" from 1966 through the early 1970s. She had no schooling from age 8-18.

Her parents were alive, but Ping was raised by an aunt and uncle. At age 7 she was forcibly taken from them to a dormitory with 50 or 60 other youngsters, where she lived for 10 years. There she was surrogate mother to her sister, Hong, who is four years younger.

After Mao died in 1976, Fu returned to school where she studied journalism and literature. For her senior thesis she wrote in-depth about the killing of infant girls, especially in rural China, under the one-child policy.

Parts of her thesis were published in a Shanghai newspaper and later picked up by news agencies around the world, which stirred international outrage. The Chinese government imprisoned her at first. But then, her peculiar punishment may have been what saved her life: She was deported to the United States, where she found her way to being admitted to the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque.

Because she was still improving her English, she became intrigued by fellow students who were learning the new, cutting edge, "manmade language" of computer programming. She found she liked it and earned a graduate degree in engineering from the University of Illinois in Urbana. She went on to work for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, located on the University of Illinois campus.

Geomagic Founded in 1997

Fu created Geomagic in 1997 with a vision of re-defining production and manufacturing, a major issue in a country where the industrial base has been eroding.

In 2005, Inc Magazine chose Fu "Entrepreneur of the Year" and the National Science Foundation has awarded Geomagic several grants aimed at reducing design time for automotive, aerospace and consumer products.

At the White House meeting, Fu stressed that whether it's a small business or the federal government, people can't simply expect technology to "fix things."

"When we identify some very large problems, we seem to think technical people can solve them. In reality, those problems are a lot of times human problems or organizational behavior problems," she said.

It's the company's leaders, she added, not the information technology staff, who need to find answers.

She also urged the White House to target smaller companies for stimulus money, since that's where most jobs are created.

Fu said she learned from the terrifying experiences of her childhood that kindness is an important quality in running a business.

"There was some goodness and caring instilled in me. My uncle, I think he anticipated bad things were coming, so he taught me resilience. When life was very dark and the whole society was in chaos, the little bit of kindness from someone else, I would latch onto it," she said.

Women made up less than 20 percent of the CEOs at the meeting. Fu said she can't imagine a company performing at its best without women at the top.

"Women think a little bit differently. I think this check-and-balance of male and female leadership is a natural to me. I think it's unnatural to have all male executives," she said.

Marsha Walton covers science, technology, environment and space issues. She was a producer for CNN's science and tech unit for more than 10 years. Her work also appears on Mother Nature Network, Appalachian Voices and the National Science Foundation.

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