“If you don’t believe in the glass ceiling, it does not exist.” That’s how Ping Fu became a top CEO

Ping Fu speaking at this year’s SXSW conference.
Ping Fu speaking at this year’s SXSW conference.
Image: Getty Images/Jesse Knish
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The headline has been corrected.

Ping Fu’s career advice to women is much simpler than leaning in or trying to have it all: Just do it.

In her new memoir, Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, Fu pragmatically writes:

On the one hand, I care a great deal about women’s equality in the workplace. On the other hand, I don’t believe in limits and ceilings. “If you don’t believe in the glass ceiling, it does not exist,” I would say.

Just last month, 3D Systems acquired Geomagic, the software modeling company she founded and served as CEO, for $55 million in cash. She now serves as its chief strategy officer.

She has excelled at navigating the male-dominated tech sector and offers management strategies for women in her book. The book has sparked controversy over the authenticity of Fu’s recollections of Chinese history. Fu told Quartz:

I wrote a business memoir, a part of which traces back to my life in China, when I was a little girl, during the Cultural Revolution. I wrote what I remembered through a child’s eye and mind; I wrote it to show how that life and the past influenced who I am today. It is not a history book, or investigative journalism, nor did I attempt to make it so.

Quartz spoke with Fu about her approach to being a mother and an executive. Edited excerpts:

Quartz: You saw a marriage between the humanities and coding, given your educational background and work in technology.

Ping Fu: In the modern era, education has become more divided. If you look at the Renaissance time, artists are scientists, scientists are artists, we call these kind of people Renaissance men, right? I do believe in more comprehensive education. I’m a big supporter of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education but also art and literature. That has benefit for humans in general—people’s minds work differently. Some people’s minds work more logical and problem solving, other people’s minds work more comprehensively in composition. That’s your major preference but  everybody can benefit from education that trains you not just in one field even if that’s not your focus.

For me, when I got into computer science and programming, at the time, I did not think I did not have a background. My literature background was very ideally suited to the field and having been trained in literature is that much more powerful in writing software. Today, we all know that writing software is as much of an art as a science. So I took advantage of having my left brain and right brain both trained.

Q: So would you recommend that all engineers have a liberal arts background as well?

PF: Oh absolutely, I recommend all engineers have a liberal arts background. I recommend all art majors have science and logical training. I think our schools do provide that kind of education and then a lot of times, a school enforces you take minors in other field. When I was at UC San Diego, we had one major and two minors and the two minors had to be in two major disciplines that are different from your major. It’s kind of like they do force that but I don’t think people consciously think about that as an advantage. I think a lot of times we do that to fulfill graduation requirements, not consciously thinking “Hey, this is actually useful.”

Q: You said that your daughter was your priority but also that having her gave you more balance in life. Where do you stand on the women “having it all” debate?

PF: Can women have it all? Not really. Can men have it all? Not really. Life is messy and I think that we all grew up wanting it all and we all know that we can’t always have everything we want. Even today, society has changed now, women still have less support in the social norm than men do, not necessarily in work. I do not feel discriminated in the workplace as many women express; I don’t feel that way. I feel less supported in the social norm, like a woman who has a child and doesn’t take care of her child, it’s not accepted by society nor by ourselves. A man will have a child and can say, “I need to work, I need to be the breadwinner.” For women, society does not necessarily support that, we also don’t support that ourselves. I feel guilty if I don’t come home and make a meal for my daughter and my ex-husband did not feel guilty about that. There’s a difference. The next generation might be very different—my daughter’s generation grew up to see her mother and father both working, there’s a drastic change in their generation but in my generation I still see my parents’ living with traditional roles.

Having my daughter when I started a business was really a good thing. As I described in the book, she was the only one who could take me away from work. I would have worked myself to death. I would have eaten a lot more junk food. That was actually nice. I know I hear a lot of women saying, “I can’t do this because I have children,” “I have to take care of my family,” and I think you can. The thing is that we may not spend as many hours at work that doesn’t make us any less effective. It’s not about competing over how many hours you spend working, it’s more of the outcome that’s more important.

I find having a child being at home creates a more healthy lifestyle for myself and creates more empathy for me to my employees who have children and a family, so I find that to be a benefit. Also, many people say once you become a mother you become a different person. There’s a reason: Once you become a mother, you wake up in the morning not just thinking about yourself, you start to think about somebody else. When you’re running a company, it’s the same thing. I don’t wake up thinking about whether or not I get a promotion or can I get ahead, I wake up thinking about whether I can make payroll for other people in the company. In some ways, it’s very similar to motherhood. I think motherhood does give us certain strengths and certain maturity. That is needed for a leadership position.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Ping Fu as a Fortune 500 CEO in the headline. Neither Geomagic nor 3D Systems are Fortune 500 companies.