"There are three friends of winter: the pine tree, the plum blossom, and bamboo,' Shanghai Papa once told me." – from Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, by Ping Fu
The above quote exemplifies one of the most poignant lessons from Ping Fu's memoir, Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds. It speaks of strength, dignity and forbearance, and resilience, regardless of exterior conditions.
Ping Fu is a pioneer in the world of 3D technology, which is one of the hottest investing topics right now. In January, 3D Systems Corp. (NYSE:DDD) announced that it was acquiring the company she founded, Geomagic. The acquisition will help 3D Systems compete in the 3D content-to-print space, which is obviously growing.
Not only have other 3D printing companies like Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) and Proto Labs (NYSE:PRLB) been hot, soaring stocks lately, ExOne (NASDAQ: XONE), which specializes in industrial metal applications, has surged by about 45% in its IPO today, as investors pile in.
Ping Fu's story could have been interesting enough given her early participation in this space (not to mention tougher times when the company almost went bankrupt, or why she decided not to sell the company in 2005).
According to her memoir, though, Ping Fu's success isn't simply about being a female immigrant who went on to found a company in a hot industry. Her story is also about starting over with nothing, and achieving success despite a traumatic past. Such stories remind investors of the entrepreneurial spirit that sparks so many exciting investment opportunities.
Hard-learned life lessons
According to Ping Fu's memoir, her happy childhood in China was upended by Chairman Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. At just eight years old, she was separated from her parents by the Red Guard, and placed in a dormitory to fend for herself and her baby sister. Fu was also subjected to physical and psychological abuse due to her status as one of the "black elements," or the demonized children of wealthy, educated people.
Although the book recounts many horrors during the Cultural Revolution, it also lends sharp relief to the reality that human kindness crops up unexpectedly, even in the worst times and most dangerous circumstances. Meanwhile, even such dire backgrounds can lend one some useful tools for future success.
For example, factory work in China (and waitressing after she arrived in America) gave Fu an idea of how to think efficiently. Fu's work with a kind engineer named Wang making radios and other electronics helped prepare her for her future in America, where she would complete her education, and eventually merge science and creativity in positions at a start-up, Bell Labs, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), and finally start her own company, Geomagic.
A kinder revolution
3D technology seems to have only recently gained ground, given growing interest in the 3D printing space at the moment. Growing strength of the Maker movement, for example, has been bringing the idea of small-scale, customized manufacturing further mainstream.
Companies like 3D Systems are now in the part of the business cycle where the technology is becoming increasingly affordable, much like the evolution of gigantic supercomputers into personal computers that were small and cheap enough for just about every home.
Geomagic has been among the vanguard of companies exploring the usefulness and utility of 3D imaging and design, formed in 1997, when everyone was obsessed with all things dot-com. At one point at NCSA, Fu even hired and worked with undergraduate (and Internet pioneer) Marc Andreessen before he had even dreamed up Netscape .
Geomagic makes software and hardware that allows customers to capture and model 3D content from objects, as well as sculpt shapes and prep products for manufacturing . Basically, these applications work hand-in-hand with Fu's early interest in the idea of "personal factories" that were customized, and yet as efficiently manufactured as mass-produced items.
Read the book and decide for yourself
The memoir business is problematic. Although it may be human nature to be unable to accurately recall all memories, occasionally, some hit the shelves with compelling stories that are actually fraught with falsehoods. A Million Little Pieces was one of the first controversial fictionalized "memoirs" that got the public's blood boiling.
Along those lines, some controversy has erupted regarding Fu's book. Amazon.com's review page currently has hundreds of reviews claiming that Fu has fabricated many of the anecdotes in the book, gaming the book's rating to two-star status. Fu has responded to many of the criticisms for Forbes, available here. The Daily Beast also touched upon something that those familiar with China's oppressive regime would point out: that these were likely paid bloggers who virulently defend China's reputation against anything close to criticism of the country, past or present.
Still, there are a few irrefutable facts that we do know, despite China's reluctance to acknowledge ; during the brutal Cultural Revolution, millions upon millions of Chinese people were killed, maimed, or persecuted . For all the progress China has made since that turbulent time, it is still an oppressive regime with a poor human rights record, and it does not appreciate free speech, much less criticism for current behavior or its past. Penguin, the book's publisher, stands by the content, and calls the Internet excoriation "political attacks ."
I highly recommend Bend Not Break, which merges a study of hardship we are unfamiliar with in America, with the entrepreneurial spirit that carries cultures forward. Mostly, this is a story about the victory and being part of far more positive revolutions, such as the tech revolution that has been taking place over the last several decades. It even includes business and investing lessons. Despite the controversy -- perhaps even partially because of it, and its cultural and historical significance -- it's definitely worth the read.