Ping Fu

By Rick Smith


Ping Fu survived the Cultural Revolution in China only to be expelled to the United States with virtually no money and no language skills.

Today, she graces the cover of Inc. magazine as its "Entrepreneur of the Year"-one of numerous awards she has received in recent years as chief executive officer of Raindrop Geomagic, a 3-D software firm based in RTP.

"I'm the embodiment of the American opportunity," Fu said with a smile. "I came here with absolutely nothing."

Fu arrived in the United States in 1981 as a 23-year-old student . By 1992 she had become a US citizen. And she loves her new homeland.

"You get caught in a traffic jam and that's a bad day? Put it in perspective," Fu said, reflecting on what she experienced growing up at the height of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution when her parents were banished to a concentration camp. She was only 7 at the time and basically had to raise herself in Shanghai as well as a young sister. "There aren't many bad days here in comparison."

She runs a growing international business that is on the cutting edge of 3-dimensional rendering. Raindrop has developed a means of capturing images-drawings, for example-and turning them into 3-D re-creations that can be fashioned into molds and prototypes.

But Fu will entertain no talk that she is brilliant, even though she was among the software developers who helped create some of the tremendous special effects used in the film Terminator 2. She also had a hand in the development of the cutting-edge Netscape web browser that helped revolutionize the Internet.

"I'm not that special," said Fu, 47. "I'm not that smart or anything else. I don't have a Harvard or MIT degree.

"I am just curious. I am learning on the fly. I don't have an MBA in business. I learn by reading and doing.

"It's more street smarts," she said with a smile, "than book smarts."

Not that she doesn't read business books. Fu recently read former GE chairman Jack Welch's book and the popular titles Blink and Tipping Point. And she did earn undergraduate and master's degrees in computer science after coming to the United States.

Fu co-founded Raindrop along with her husband, Herbert Edelsbrunner, who is a professor at Duke University. She took over as chief executive officer of Raindrop in 2001. Since then the company has grown to some 100 employees with international offices in China as well as Singapore, Germany and Hungary. But being CEO doesn't keep her away from other interests.

"I like shapes. I enjoy sculpture more than painting," she said. Fu also spends a great deal of time with Xixi, her 12-year-old daughter. And she likes to do gardening.

Life for Fu is certainly different from her experiences growing up.

"During the Cultural Revolution, my parents were taken away. I raised myself for about 10 years," she recalled. "Father and mother were taken to a local concentration camp. They were screaming my name. Then they disappeared.

"Father was a professor and aerospace engineer, mother a chief financial officer of a large company before the Cultural Revolution. She was a very ambitious career woman."

Fu recently read a new biography of Mao-someone she admires not in the least.

"Mao historically is just like Stalin and Hitler," she said. "He was a brutal dictator who killed millions of people.

When she was banished to the United States, Fu found her way to a career in computers and software design. She remains forever grateful to her new homeland.

"I basically got my life back. It was an opportunity. I had no language skills, no money. Numerous people helped me," she said. "If I made it, a large part of [the reason] is that this society gave me an opportunity."

The American Dream is there for all, she stressed.

"If you have a passion to do something, you can do it," Fu said. "It is one of the richest countries in the world, and the one with the least number of barriers to pursue your dream, or to live a decent life. It's not hard to succeed-if you are willing to work.

"I feel protected here. I don't fear abuse. You think that you are supposed to have rights. I didn't come from a society where that was accepted."

Fu routinely returns to China on business, and memories of her upbringing are never far away.

"My experiences in China made me tougher, made me appreciate the good things that come my way, made me appreciate the opportunities and gave me a better attitude toward life. I am more optimistic."

She also is encouraged to see how China has changed in recent years, developing a free-market economy with amazing growth.

"I am very happy to see the change in China. In the last few years they have had more stability than in the previous 150 years," she said. "Three generations of people lived with nothing but chaos."

In running Raindrop, Fu said she would remain focused on building value.

"I always follow my heart. That's something I'm passionate about," she explained. "I want to create value. I don't think about creating wealth. That's not my interest. It's never been about money.

"What I think about and am hoping is that what I'm doing is good for society. If everyone tries to create value, we all will be better off."

Fu also wanted to make sure that she shared credit for her individual honors with her company.

"I'm flattered to be honored with so many awards. On the other hand, they are a validation of what we do as a company-we add value," she said. "I have incredibly good people here. No one single person achieves success. This is a family business. I understand that."