Monday, February 11, 2013



Beating the odds

February, 2013

Beating the odds

From 80 dollars in her pocket and the total words of Hello, Thank You and Help to being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. A review on BEND, NOT BREAK, A Life in Two Worlds By Ping Fu and Mei Mei Fox

Fu, a latecomer to the English language, coauthored this account of her own remarkable life with Fox, a seasoned writer and editor. The story begins in China with Mao’s Cultural Revolution and moves to the US through the revolution and beyond.
Fu was brought up in Shanghai, the youngest of a loving family, by ‘Shanghai Mama and Papa’ and her grandfather. They lived in a comfortable home complete with a library and ‘scholar garden’…‘a lovely garden filled with exotic species of flowers, wooden pagodas and winding stone paths.’ It was a happy life which ended suddenly and brutally when Fu, at the age of eight, was forcibly taken from home and sent to her birthplace, Nanjing, by Mao’s Red Guard. It was only then that she discovered that her mother was actually ‘Nanjing Mother,’ an aunt who lived in that city.
She was not allowed to live with this aunt/mother in Nanjing, however. Instead, she lived with and took care of Hong, her four year old natural sister. There were others, mostly children, in a similar situation at the ‘dormitories’ at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She remained here for the next ten years, sleeping on the floor and using communal facilities. All schools had shut down. In her book she shares this personal glimpse into Mao’s repressive regime, and recounts her homesickness, her sister’s dependence on her, and incidences of starvation, torture, and rape. She also shares the lessons she learnt and the many acts of kindness and heartwarming humanity she encountered: ‘For many years I would occasionally find prepared or uncooked food at our door…I often tried to find out who was helping us…but it was another lifetime before I finally discovered our benefactor’s identity.
Schools re-opened a decade later, but censorship and repression continued. At the age of twenty five, Fu was forcibly ejected once again, this time out of China, in consequence of her research into repercussions of the ‘one family, one child’ rule as part of her thesis. She fled to the US with the words Hello, Thank you, Help, and $80 in her pocket, enough to buy a ticket from her port of entry to the University at Albuquerque. As it turned out, the fare had gone up to $85, so she started life in her new home with a handout from a stranger for the balance.
It is difficult to review a book objectively. Come what may, after the evaluation of language, style and content, you are left with a very personal encounter with the writer and what her writing says to you alone.
Immigrants will relate to some of Fu’s experiences in a new country. Life was not easy for Fu, it had not been easy for a long time. After a beginning that is best not read by parents sending their children away to university, she nonetheless settled happily into campus life in New Mexico. The speed with which she made her way from strength to strength is a gripping story and worth a read, a compendium of her feelings and experiences during the next few years, the hard work, and the first trip back to China after a decade. It was a trip that left her feeling adrift, because of the sudden confrontation with change on all fronts not least within herself: ‘the longer I stayed the more out of place I felt. The China of my memories, however horrific, no longer existed…I became lost in a dense fog of memories. I realized that I was trying to hold on to a China of the past, as if by reconnecting with the China of my childhood I might be better able to connect with myself.’
Fu’s observations about China and the speed with which it recovered in some ways from the effects of the Cultural Revolution are striking: ‘all at once schools everywhere re-opened, offering classes literally from six am till midnight, free of charge.’ She notes how by 2005 China had ‘firmly established itself as a leading manufacturing hub of the world.’ Comparing China and the US she finds that it is odd that ‘like twins separated at birth and raised by wildly different parents, the countries should turn out to be so alike when they grew up.’ One cannot but help place these images in the context of Pakistan today.
In 1994, Ping Fu wrote her first book which was printed in Chinese in Hong Kong. In this book she disclaimed any inclination towards entrepreneurship, in part a result of her Maoist indoctrination to look down upon the acquisition of money. Yet soon after she went on to lead the team that gave the computing world Netscape, and set up Geomagic Inc., a company that rapidly became a leading global provider of 3D solutions and was subsequently listed as a Fortune 500 company. In Ping Fu’s words, it aims to ‘make mass production personal,’ a groundbreaking idea. 3D scanners already existed. But the idea of taking the scanned information and printing it in 3D is so immense that one wishes it had been better explained in the book by means of graphics. 3D printing has been used by BMW, GM and VW to design cars, as well as by a host of other companies to make shoes, prosthetics, retainers, etc, with a custom fit.
News as of January 2013 after the publication of the book in the latter half of 2012, is that the company is set to be purchased by 3D systems DDD. It is another coup for Ping Fu, who is currently also a member of President Obama’s National Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Coming from an academic family background, Fu’s own academic qualifications consisted of computer sciences. She was therefore unprepared for this swift immersion into the corporate world. It is to her credit that she used whatever guidance she could get. With experience on such a fast track she needed books and seminars as guidance.  Most of the clich├ęd phrases in the book are instantly recognizable as coming from self help books and seminars. These may irritate the reader, but Fu needed to and did draw from these, and it is an important aspect of her achievements.
‘I could become a bottleneck at Geomagic if I attempted to make all critical decisions myself. I needed to trust my team and not interfere as a ‘helicopter CEO,’ an important piece of advice for micromanagers. And the book contains many useful insights such as these on management, team skills, negotiations and entrepreneurship. Corporate owners and employees are the people who will benefit most from reading it, and would enjoy it best…other than those who simply like to read about achievement against almost overwhelming odds.
The book is available in Pakistan, in paperback.