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One Woman’s Journey From Chinese Labor Camp To Top American Tech Entrepreneur

January 24, 2013

By Jenna Goudreau, Forbes Staff
“I knew they were coming for me,” says Ping Fu. It was 1966, the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao Zedong, and she was 8 years old. “I heard this huge noise in the courtyard and saw the Red Guard. Then I heard my mom crying, saying, ‘She’s so little.’ They grabbed me. I wasn’t even given a chance to hug my mom. I was taken away from Shanghai, the only home I knew.”

Taken from her parents, Fu was left to fend for herself and her younger sister in a government-run ghetto in Nanjing, China, where she lived for nearly a decade. There, she was brainwashed, starved, tortured and gang raped, forced to become a child factory worker and without proper schooling. Years later, when the schools reopened, Fu began rebuilding her life as a student at Suzhou University. It was short-lived. A few months before graduation, her senior thesis on female infanticide in China’s countryside caught the attention of the national press. She was imprisoned and sentenced to exile.

Fu began her life in America broke, alone and knowing only three words of English. She put herself through school doing odd jobs and eventually earned a computer science degree, setting her up to become a leading innovator in the early dot-com era. In 1997, she launched tech firm Geomagic with her husband, creating 3D software to customize product manufacturing, from personalized shoes and prosthetic limbs to NASA spaceship repairs. By 2005, it had $30 million in revenues, and she was named Inc. magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year.

Today Fu sits on President Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and this month agreed to sell Geomagic to 3D printing leader 3D Systems, where she will be Chief Strategy Officer. With a bigger platform and the time ripe for 3D printing, she believes it’s finally within her reach to “revolutionize American manufacturing.”

Her journey from Chinese labor camp to U.S. innovator is outlined in newmemoir Bend, Not Break, a reliving that she calls both “horrific” and “healing.” She sat down with Forbes to discuss her dark past and how it shaped her into a resilient leader.

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