Ping Fu at work(WOMENSENEWS)–Her company’s technology can help keep astronauts safe; save manufacturers millions by reducing waste; and create custom medical devices that work and fit better.

Ping Fu and Geomagic are not the household names of Steve Jobs and Apple, or Meg Whitman and eBay. But that could change.

Fu was one of the few women among the 50 CEOs who took part in a January White House forum on modernizing government. A week later, she was asked to join Michelle Obama in her box at the State of the Union address.

"It was certainly a tremendous honor to be her guest," Fu told Women’s eNews in a recent phone interview. "When I received the invitation, I couldn’t even really align it with reality. I said to my daughter, ‘How did I get from there to here?’ Really, I had to pinch myself."

Certainly it’s been a most unlikely journey for a woman who was imprisoned in her native China and then thrown out of the country for reporting the killing of infant girls under China’s one-child policy.

Geomagic, founded by Fu in 1997, is a private company based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., with offices in the United States, Europe and Asia. Its clients range from NASA to NASCAR drivers.

The company uses a technology called digital shape sampling and processing, DSSP, to make three-dimensional models. Numerous high-tech applications exist for this technology.

In the space shuttle program, for instance, Geomagic software can take laser-camera scans of damaged heat tiles and create 3-D models down to cracks as small as a fraction of a millimeter. Based on that, NASA engineers can decide what, if any, repairs are needed to get the shuttle and astronauts home safely.

Multiple Uses

Geomagic’s software is also used to develop customized appliances for treating children with cleft palates at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield, Mass. In addition, historical preservationists use it to create images of national monuments such as the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore. In the event of damage or attack, the software could be used to repair or recreate the monuments down to the minutest detail.

"Improving the technology our government uses isn’t about having the fanciest bells and whistles on our Web sites," Obama told the January technology forum. "It’s about how we use the American people’s hard-earned tax dollars to make government work better for them."

A headline example of making better governmental use of technology is the digitization of medical records to save money for publicly-funded health care.

Fu suggests that’s just a start. She envisions the day when patients and makers of medical devices can have access to the millions of CT (computed tomography) scans and MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) sitting in doctors’ offices to create customized prosthetics, implants and other treatments that fit and function better.

Amy Millman, president of Springboard Enterprises, the Washington nonprofit that assists female entrepreneurs to gain access to capital, has worked with Fu since 2002 and was instrumental in getting her to the White House forum.

Millman said business leaders such as Fu are compelled to come up with a successful business model early in the game, since they are using investors’ money.

"Entrepreneurs are on the line to produce a milestone every quarter, because it’s somebody else’s money at stake," said Millman. Fu managed to do that and the technology world has taken note.

"She didn’t know how good she was," said Millman of Fu’s abilities. "She was quiet and unassuming. She has refreshing vision. She’s humble in the process and believes strongly in the culture of what she has built."

An Unexpected Path

Fu’s early life could hardly predict her path to high-tech innovator.

"I did not know I would become a business woman, because when I was in China I was brainwashed that ‘money was evil,’" she said.

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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Forum on Modernizing Government: Opening Session