Harid “H.” Puentes’ work in diversity and inclusion in STEM-related fields for science, technology, engineering and math, is personal while also coming a bit naturally to him. As a freshman in high school, he earned perfect scores in math for the entire year. His teachers were impressed, but that was where it ended. No one followed up to him in math, to inform him about potential careers in STEM, or considered introducing him to professionals who shared his background.
“Now, I am a father to two diverse children (and) I want them to know that, not only do they belong in STEM, but that STEM-driven companies want them to be successful,” he says.
Part of how he’s fulfilling that commitment to his own children and others is through San Diego Squared, the nonprofit he founded with Bill Rastetter, a veteran in the San Diego biotechnology and venture capital fields for more than 30 years. The organization is focused on increasing diversity in STEM careers among underrepresented students and their teachers with mentoring, financial assistance and other programming.
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” who’s a pharmacist with a Ph.D. in oncology), and their two young children, Emily and Owen. He took some time to talk about the work of his organization, his own background in addressing income inequality and increasing diversity in innovation economics, and how his painting and digital art serve as his secret weapon.
Q: You and your co-founder met in the summer of 2020? There was a lot going on during that time, specifically the pandemic and protests against racial injustice. What prompted the two of you to create San Diego Squared that year?
A: Bill and I were digging separate tunnels, looking for a solution for the lack of diversity in STEM. We found each other along the way and quickly realized that to work together, alongside some incredible leaders, we could be exponentially more effective.
Now, together at SD2, we leverage the unique access we have to some of San Diego’s most innovative companies and open that up to diverse students who are ready to lead the talent pipeline.
Q: Tell us about your organization.
A: SD2 is on a long-term mission to increase representation at STEM-driven companies in San Diego, and we do that through partnerships, long-term mentorship, and financial support for underrepresented high school and college students and their educators. We have four areas of focus: Community Activation, a Squared Fellows program for high school students, a Squared Interns program for college students, and a Squared Scholars program where we provide college scholarships for students pursuing a college degree in a STEM related field.
Financial support is not new, but still the needle has not moved in STEM employment pipelines. The needle hasn’t moved because it is not just financial support that’s necessary to build diverse talent. When you pair financial support with authentic human connection, creating long-term, one-on-one mentorship, you can really make an impact. Mentorship empowers students to build their confidence and sense of belonging in STEM or “STEM Identity”; mentorship assists students in gaining a nuanced understanding of careers in STEM; mentorship develops a student’s social capital and surrounds them with a network of advocates. These can illuminate the path into STEM.
What I love about University City …
University City is a beautiful place where academia meets innovation. We have been here for almost a decade and landed here because it was within cycling distance to where my wife went to school. Having a new trolley stop nearby that can take us throughout San Diego and all the way to Tijuana is a nice bonus, too!
Q: Your organization’s website says that your parents are immigrants from Colombia. Has that had any influence on how you see and understand STEM and the lack of diversity in the field?
A: Of course! My parents have given everything they could for me. My grandmother raised my mother and aunt on her own in New York, working hard as a seamstress, and one of my most humbling experiences was going back to Colombia to see where my father grew up. We struggled financially when I was growing up. My mother and I laugh to this day because I showed up to college with a can opener and a towel because it was all they could give me. I didn’t have a pillow, any bed sheets, etc., but through some 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 useful mentor relationship with the students who come through your organization?
A: Our approach to mentoring is grounded in humanity, built on trust and empathy, and solidified through consistent experiences over time between mentor and mentee.
From the perspective of SD2, we take an experiential learning approach to our work and invest heavily in creating environments where those relationships can grow consistently, over time, through shared lived experiences. In other words, we work hard so that the mentor and mentee pair see value in each other without us needing to tell them. Our mentor-mentee pairs meet every month, and the commitment is for an entire year. This allows real bonds to be created and real relationships to form, and the learning goes both ways. When you create an environment of equal collaboration and learning, it empowers both the mentor and the mentee and allows the maximum potential of that relationship to be realized.
Q: Can you share a story about a student who was involved in your programming at San Diego Squared and what the result of that involvement has been for them?
A: I’ll share two. One of our high school fellows, Mercy, had her mind set on becoming a computer scientist when the program started, but after visiting life science companies Neurocrine Biosciences and Illumina, she reconnected with her love for biology and is now enrolled in Advanced Placement biology.
We placed Charles, a California State University, San Marcos graduate in chemistry, as a drug development intern at TRACON Pharmaceuticals, and he is now their latest 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’s been challenging about your work with SD2?
A: Diverse students face challenges outside of their control. Some students need to take care of siblings or work to support their families. To mitigate this, we take a holistic approach in how we support students. For example, we provide $100-per-month food stipends for our Squared Fellows through a partnership we have with Specialty Produce, and we build in financial incentives throughout the program to support students.
Q: What’s been rewarding for this work?
A: The rewarding part is when a student decides to pursue a degree in STEM or lands a job in STEM. At the end of the day, this work is about building a talent pipeline and seeing diverse students land high-paying jobs with great benefits, amazing working conditions, and stable career trajectories.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: My older brother, K, is so wise. He has been dropping knowledge on me since we were in diapers. When he would give me the most incredible advice, I would always say things like, “Thank you so much,” or “I am so thankful to have you as my big brother.” His response, 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 am an artist, and it is my secret weapon. It makes me more empathetic and grounded in humanity.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: We discover a new brunch spot somewhere in San Diego. We haven’t been and spend some time on the beach having fun with the kids. I pull out my iPad or art supplies wherever we are and work on another piece. And, of course, we all get a full night’s sleep the whole weekend!