Bend, Not Break: A life in two worlds, by Ping Fu - review

Exiled from Communist China, Ping Fu became a tech boom entrepreneur. Linda Yueh finds the book a vivid narration of Fu's life experiences.

by Linda Yueh
Last Updated: 01 Feb 2013

I have for some time admired the resilience of those who left China during the early part of the reform period in the 1980s.

Despite the disruptions to their education caused by the Cultural Revolution, when academic study was shut down for a decade until 1976, and the dislocation of being 'sent down to the countryside', where some toiled in manual labour for up to 10 years, they managed to enter or resume their studies and establish themselves as successful academics and business leaders, and in other significant roles.

Ping Fu, the CEO of the Fortune 500 company, Geomagic, certainly fits the bill.

Bend, Not Break is essentially her memoirs. She had an idyllic childhood in Shanghai, then endured the abuses of the Cultural Revolution, which shaped her formative years from ages eight to 18, and finally went into exile in the States where she founded a tech start-up that led to her being named Inc's Entrepreneur of the Year.

The book cleverly juxtaposes her early experiences with her journey as a successful programmer during the 1990s, so the reader can follow how she learned that showing vulnerability can lead to effective outcomes, and how sometimes retreat is the successful strategy.

The most prominent theme in the book is how Ping Fu integrates her Chinese values into her American working life. Specifically, she focuses on how the Chinese tolerate, accept and even idealise contradictions, such as those outlined above. The sub-title of the book, A Life in Two Worlds, captures this well.

But, it's the vivid narration of her life experiences that draws the reader in.

She was wrenched from her home by Mao's Red Guards and thrust into a dormitory to fend for not only herself but her four-year-old sister. She suffered abuse and humiliation.

Fu sardonically comments that years of public self-confessions of her worthlessness mean that she doesn't fear speaking on stage. Finding herself exiled after college, she left for the US and has lived the quintessential American Dream.

Fu did a number of odd jobs to put herself through college and then became a programmer caught up in the tech boom and bust. She was a reluctant entrepreneur and shares the lessons that she learned about managing the peaks and valleys of running a tech start-up. These include hiring an unsuccessful CEO to run her company, as well as poor M&A decisions.

But there were more triumphs than failures, including the extraordinary contributions that her company makes to 3D production techniques. She articulates those lessons and insights, many of which draw on her Chinese values.

For instance, Geomagic has done well in China, a tough market due to imperfect protection of intellectual property rights. Ping Fu's firm enjoys double-digit growth, despite the importance of patented technology for her business.

Its strategy is to sell to big companies and just accept that the small ones will pirate its technology. But, when these firms mature, they will know the quality of the software and become customers.

It's a pragmatic approach that seems to work, and yet flies in the face of conventional battles over IPRs that have kept some tech companies out of the world's fastest-growing market. It's one of the many fascinating strategies undertaken by Fu as a self-taught CEO.

It is always interesting to read about how a successful CEO has done it, but Ping Fu's extraordinary childhood adds a further resonance.

One can't help but think at the end of the book that the Chinese parable she narrates about how it's not easy to say what's good or bad fortune is something always to bear in mind, in business and in life. If it were not for her forced exile to the States, she may not have found her calling or become an adviser on President Obama's innovation council.

The book will draw the reader in, and one will finish it with not just an insight into a successful tech start-up but also a greater familiarity with China's reform period.

And readers will perhaps also see why I have always held those emigrants in high regard...

Bend, Not Break: A life in two worlds

Ping Fu

Portfolio Penguin, £12.99

Dr Linda Yueh is a fellow in economics at Oxford University, adjunct professor of economics at the London Business School and visiting professor of economics at Peking University.

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