Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Bend it Like Bamboo

Ping was the happy child of a merchant family in Shanghai, the largest city in China.  Her parents were well-educated and successful, and the family, including Ping’s younger sister, was very close. 

When Ping was eight years old, China entered the Cultural Revolution, a government effort to enforce communism and remove capitalist elements from Chinese society.  People whose only crime was trying to carve out a better life were persecuted, and many suffered imprisonment, torture, harassment, and seizure of their property.  Some of these individuals were also forcibly displaced from cities to rural areas, and separated from their children in the process.

Ping’s father saw these chaotic events unfolding, and sensed what may be coming.  In his garden, he attempted to prepare Ping for life without him by teaching her about ‘The Three Friends of Winter,’ the pine, the plum, and the bamboo.  The pine tree stood for courage, while the plum tree indicated perseverance.  It was the meaning of bamboo, however, that Ping would latch onto.  Bamboo bends with the wind but doesn’t break, symbolizing flexibility in hard times.  It suggests resilience, and the idea of being able to withstand great difficulties and bounce back.  The lesson would be a critical one.

When Ping was 8 years old, members of the paramilitary known as Red Guards came for her family, who were considered “black elements” due to their education and status.  As punishment for their merchant-class background, Ping’s parents were sent to a “culture education camp,” while the young girls were taken to a separate camp in Nanjing.  There, Ping raised herself and her 4-year-old sister in a tiny concrete dormitory without heat, proper food, or adult supervision.  They survived on "bitter meals" the Red Guards made from such debris as tree bark, animal manure, and mold.  Starved, tortured, sexually abused and unschooled, Ping remained in Nanjing for nearly a decade, working in a factory.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, the schools re-opened, and Ping sought to rebuild her life by enrolling as a student at Suzhou University.  In her senior year, she undertook a thesis project on China’s one-child policy.  Ping’s research across the countryside revealed that infanticide of female babies was common, as was abortion, even late into pregnancy.  Her thesis found its way to a national newspaper, and an editorial was published based on its research, listing Ping as the original author.  In short order, she was imprisoned and sentenced to exile.  She was given just two weeks to leave China.

At age 25, Ping arrived in America with $80 to buy a ticket to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she would study English at the University of New Mexico.  However, at the ticket counter, she learned she was $5 short of the ticket price.  Fortunately, an American man in line behind her gave her the $5.  That first act of generosity in her new country would characterize her thinking for years to come.

Ping’s time in Nanjing had taught her about survival.  She babysat, cleaned houses, and waited tables, earning enough to cover tuition and rent.  She excelled at computer science in school, and soon transferred to the University of California in San Diego to complete a computer science degree.  She found programming work at start-ups and later at major corporations, quickly becoming a star employee.  Over the next several years, she got increasingly bigger opportunities, finally coming to manage the team at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications that created the first user-friendly Web browser.

Ping Fu liked to refer to herself as a reluctant entrepreneur, because she was uncertain about running her own business, especially after getting married and having a child.  However, she couldn’t resist the desire to make her ideas a reality.  She successfully pitched her vision for 3D mapping software to investors, raising $6.5 million to start Geomagic.  Then, after the individual she hired to run the company nearly ran it into the ground, she assumed control and took over as CEO.  Within 8 years, the company had $30 million in revenues, and Ping Fu was named Inc. Magazine’s 2005 Entrepreneur of the Year.

Ping Fu could have given in and been broken many times during her life, from her dark childhood in China to her time as the CEO of a struggling start-up.  But the lessons of her father and her own inner strength kept her intact through even the most traumatic experiences.  Like bamboo, we must be strong, flexible, and resilient, even when life’s challenges bend us to near-breaking!

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams!

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