San Diego Squared co-founder wants diverse students to know they belong in STEM

Harid “H.” Puentes’ work on diversity and inclusion in STEM-related fields for science, technology, engineering, and math is personal yet comes somewhat naturally to him. As a freshman in high school, he got perfect grades in math all year. His teachers were impressed, but that was where it stopped. No one followed him to encourage him in math, to inform him of potential careers in STEM, or to introduce him to professionals who shared his experience.

“Now I’m a father of two different kids (and) I want them to know that not only do they belong in STEM, but STEM-focused businesses want them to succeed,” he says.

Part of how he fulfills this commitment to his own children and others is through San Diego Squared, the nonprofit he founded with Bill Rastetter, a veteran in the fields of biotechnology and San Diego venture capitalist for over 30 years. The organization focuses on increasing diversity in STEM careers among underrepresented students and their teachers through mentorship, financial aid, and other programs.

Puentes — who also ran for San Diego City Council in 2020 — is 37 and the co-founder and executive director of San Diego Squared. He lives in University City with his wife, Róisín (“the rock of our family,” a pharmacist with a doctorate in oncology), and their two young children, Emily and Owen. He took the time to talk about the work of his organization, his own experience in tackling income inequality and growing diversity in the innovation economy, and how his painting and digital art serve him as a secret weapon.

Q: You and your co-founder met in the summer of 2020? There was a lot going on during this time, especially the pandemic and the protests against racial injustice. What prompted you to create San Diego Squared that year?

A: Bill and I were digging separate tunnels, looking for a solution to the lack of diversity in STEM. We met along the way and soon realized that by continuing to work together, alongside incredible leaders, we could be exponentially more effective.

Now, together at SD2, we’re leveraging the unique access we have to some of San Diego’s most innovative companies and opening it up to diverse students ready to lead the talent pool.

Q: Tell us about your organization.

A: SD2 has a long-term mission to increase representation in STEM-focused businesses in San Diego, and we do this through partnerships, long-term mentorship, and financial support for high school students and underrepresented students and their educators. We focus on four areas: community activation, a Squared Fellows program for high school seniors, a Squared Interns program for college students, and a Squared Scholars program where we provide college scholarships to students pursuing a college education. in a STEM-related field.

Financial support is nothing new, but the needle still hasn’t moved in STEM employment pipelines. The needle hasn’t moved because it’s not just the financial support that’s needed to nurture diverse talent. When you combine financial support with genuine human connection, creating long-term one-on-one mentorship, you can truly make an impact. Mentoring allows students to build their confidence and sense of belonging to STEM or “STEM identity”; mentoring helps students gain a nuanced understanding of STEM careers; mentoring develops a student’s social capital and surrounds them with a network of advocates. These can light the way to STEM.

What I love about University City…

University City is a beautiful place where university meets innovation. We have been here almost a decade and ended up here because it was within biking distance of where my wife went to school. Having a new trolley stop nearby that can take us all over San Diego and all the way to Tijuana is also a nice bonus!

Q: Your organization’s website indicates that your parents are Colombian immigrants. Has this influenced how you see and understand STEM and the lack of diversity in the field?

A: Sure! My parents gave everything for me. My grandmother raised my mother and aunt alone in New York, working hard as a seamstress, and one of my most humbling experiences was returning to Colombia to see where my father grew up. We struggled financially when I was growing up. My mom and I still laugh today because I showed up to college with a can opener and a towel because that was all they could give me. I had no pillows, sheets, etc., but with incredible support and hard work, here I am.

Q: What is your approach to mentoring underrepresented students in STEM? What do you find most helpful in developing a positive and helpful mentoring relationship with students who come through your organization?

A: Our approach to mentorship is grounded in humanity, grounded in trust and empathy, and cemented by consistent experiences over time between mentor and mentee.

From SD2’s perspective, we take an experiential learning approach to our work and invest heavily in creating environments where these relationships can develop consistently, over time, through lived experiences. shared. In other words, we work hard to make the mentor and mentee value each other without us having to tell them. Our mentor-mentee pairs meet monthly, and the commitment is for a full year. It builds real connections and relationships, and the learning goes both ways. When you create an environment of equal collaboration and learning, it empowers both mentor and mentee and helps realize the maximum potential of that relationship.

Q: Can you share the story of a student who participated in your programming at San Diego Squared and what was the result of this involvement for him?

A: I will share two. One of our high school classmates, Mercy, intended to become a computer scientist at the start of the program, but after visiting life science companies Neurocrine Biosciences and Illumina, she rekindled her love for biology and is now enrolled in advanced biology.

We placed Charles, a chemistry graduate from California State University, San Marcos, as a drug development intern at TRACON Pharmaceuticals, and he is now their last full-time employee. A few weeks ago, he was so excited to share the news that he was receiving his first company bonus.

Q: What was difficult in your work with SD2?

A: Various students face challenges beyond their control. Some students have to take care of their siblings or work to support their families. To mitigate this, we take a holistic approach in how we support students. For example, we provide food allowances of $100 per month to our Squared Fellows through a partnership we have with Specialty Produce, and we incorporate financial incentives throughout the program to support students.

Q: What was rewarding about this job?

A: The rewarding part is when a student decides to pursue a STEM education or lands a STEM job. Ultimately, this job is about building a talent pool and seeing diverse students land well-paying jobs with great benefits, amazing working conditions, and stable career trajectories.

Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: My older brother, K, is so wise. He’s dropped knowledge on me since we were in childbirth. When he gave me the most amazing advice, I always said things like, “Thank you so much,or “I’m so grateful to have you as my big brother.” His answer, without hesitation, would always be: “All credit goes to the listeners!”

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I’m an artist, and it’s my secret weapon. It makes me more empathetic and grounded in humanity.

Q: Please describe your ideal weekend in San Diego.

A: We discover a new brunch spot somewhere in San Diego we haven’t been to and spend time on the beach having fun with the kids. I pull out my iPad or my art supplies wherever we are and work on another piece. And, of course, we all get a full night’s sleep all weekend!

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