H. Puentes is the Co-Founder and Executive Director, San Diego Squared at San Diego Squared. San Diego Squared connects underrepresented students to the power of STEM by providing access to education, mentorship, and the resources they need to lead the talent workforce. In this episode, H. shares the secret ingredient for the success of SD2’s students. (Full interview and transcript, below.)
#IncludingYouPodcast Interview with H. Puentes
[00:00:48] Amy: Welcome back to including you. My name is Amy Waninger and I am your host. I’m also the founder and CEO of lead at any level. My guest today is H Puentes. H is the co-founder and executive director of San Diego squared. San Diego squared is an organization that connects underrepresented student to the power of stem, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics by providing access to education, mentorship and the resources, they need to be leaders in the talent workforce.
[00:01:17] Amy: H, welcome to the show.
[00:01:19] H.: Thank you for having me, Amy. I appreciate being here.
[00:01:23] Amy: I’m excited to talk to you because what you’re doing is. It’s not necessarily unique in the world, but the way you’re going about it is unique. Can you talk a little bit about why you started San Diego square?
[00:01:37] H.: Yeah, I think, I think that for me I didn’t have anybody growing up that was a stem professional or that worked anywhere in stem, science, technology, engineering, mathematics.
[00:01:46] H.: And so I’ve tried to build an organization alongside some really great people that essentially is the organization or the support that I wish I had to help change my career trajectory. I was very fortunate that even though I studied political science, I went to some really great schools and that allowed me to flourish. A lot of people
[00:02:07] H.: don’t have that opportunity to go to a sort of world renowned school. And so therefore they get these degrees that really don’t have any great career prospects or job opportunities and they’re saddled with debt, and so I just wanted to build an organization that really connects the dots between underrepresented, diverse talent and these incredible opportunities at stem driven companies
[00:02:29] Amy: Yeah, so you don’t know this, but you were speaking my language because yeah, I grew up in rural Southern Indiana. So, on the surface, I don’t look like underrepresented talent. I don’t look like disadvantaged a disadvantaged youth, the picture that most people have in their minds. But I literally knew no one who went to college other than my doctors and my teachers.
[00:02:48] Amy: Until I went to college, and so what you’re doing is so incredible because you’re creating not just that pathway, but also that spark of imagination in these young kids that says this thing exists and I could go be it. Which is a huge, that’s the first obstacle, right? Is that people don’t even know young people don’t always know what jobs exist or what these opportunities even are.
[00:03:13] H.: Yeah, and there’s even a further step there, which I think is where we’re really trying to hone in on, which is that you’ve got more women in medical school than men. You’ve got more women at MIT than ever before. You’ve got underrepresented, diverse students graduating with stem degrees than ever before, but we’re still not moving the needle in companies.
[00:03:32] H.: And so, what’s missing at the sort of, at that’s that sort of last mile of, okay, you got your degree, okay you’re ready to go, but you’re still not landing the job, and so what you do, you go find another job somewhere where maybe you could get it, but you’re not in a stem driven company and your career trajectory and your pathway goes far.
[00:03:52] H.: And so I think for us we’re focused on, you know when I look at talent, there’s two buckets, right? There’s the talent of in stem, there’s the, can you pipette, like work pipette, can you do basic math? Can you code, right? Can you do that stuff? And I think that part of talent is pretty robust, right?
[00:04:09] H.: Developing that meaning that’s curriculum, that’s done through universities and, stem programs and, coding camps and robotics camps and all that, and I think you’re seeing less like a ton of that. The other side of talent, which I think isn’t talked enough is for me, threefold.
[00:04:26] H.: Is, does the student have the confidence and belief in themselves, the stem identity? Do they believe that they belong as a chemist or that they see themselves as the computer engineer? That’s 0.1 0.2 is, do they have a real nuanced understanding of the industry, right? Meaning, okay. You wanna be a chemist?
[00:04:45] H.: Do you like chemistry? Okay, great. Are you a computational chemist? Are you a theoretical chemist? Are you a biochemist really understanding the nuance. You wanna be a computer programmer, okay, great. Are you front end? Are you backend? Are you full stack? What languages do you code in? These are really important, things to know because the most competitive
[00:05:05] H.: person with respect to applications to roles are gonna be those that really understand the role and understand the nuance of the industry. And the third thing that I think is often under reflected upon is do they have the social capital? Do they have the network that can help them? Do they know someone that went to Harvard or MIT or Yale that can write that letter of recommendation?
[00:05:25] H.: Do they know that individual that works at Google or Facebook or Illumina that can help navigate right, and say, hey, here’s this hiring manager that’s for that role, and let me explain that role and what they’re looking for, and here’s the nuance of that, right? Because at the end of the day for me, if you didn’t grow up like you and I did with no uncle that taught us this stuff, no aunt that was in this space, then we don’t have that, and so that’s the focus of SD two, right? We’re, we are building programs that build the students’ stem identity and sense of belonging that build their nuance, understanding of the industry. And most importantly builds their social capital so that when they do graduate right, or when they are coming up, Hey, I wanna apply to Harvard or Yale or university for a stem degree.
[00:06:10] H.: They are prepared and they have the relationships in the network to be able to execute on that, and I think that’s, what’s really exciting about this work, and I think perhaps, maybe the unique approach is that we’re not focused on the curriculum side. We think there’s some incredible partners that we work with that do that stuff.
[00:06:25] H.: Universities are making incredible strides in that space, but where I think people, where it’s a little bit harder, the higher hanging fruit, if you will is how do you build social capital? Now that to me is like where this kind of work gets exciting.
[00:06:41] Amy: Yeah, so I’m gonna ask how do you do that in this program for you?
[00:06:44] Amy: That’s the question. It’s all about networking. It’s there’s but there’s also this component. I loved what you said about confidence and identity. Do I belong here? Because without that confidence and identity, you don’t have the nerve to walk up to somebody who could sponsor you into an MIT program or can introduce you to a hiring manager at Google, even if you know them, you wouldn’t ask without that piece.
[00:07:07] Amy: So how are you marrying those two and pushing these, these baby birds out of the nest in that way?
[00:07:11] H.: Yeah, so we have to understand SDT. You should probably understand our origin and I’ll be super brief here and there’s much more to it, but essentially, I was born in New York,
[00:07:24] H.: I grew up in Texas, my parents are immigrants from Columbia. We had some real financial hardship. Was lucky to get to George Mason for undergrad. My mother laughs because I pulled up with that can opener in a towel because I could, that’s all she could give me, in a pocket full of dreams.
[00:07:38] H.: I didn’t have sheets, I didn’t have pillows, I didn’t have anything cuz we just didn’t have it. But with some hard work and some mentorship and some support was able to then go off the grad school in London and after grad school. Was a management consultant flying around like crazy, landed at a venture back startup out of the bay, which is where I really understood how companies are formed
[00:07:56] H.: and like this fast pace of this innovation economy was burnt out and about a decade ago, discovered my love transitioned to a nonprofit and just discovered something that just spoke to me in ways that I’d never experienced in my career before I was at SD two. I was at an accelerator here in San Diego called connect.
[00:08:15] H.: And while I connect, I was in charge of sort of external affairs and we started a program called connect all, and we took that program. It was our program, it was our diversity inclusion initiative focused on increasing diversity amongst our founders, executives, and boards of directors. I took that program from concepts about
[00:08:32] H.: 4 million in funding in two and a half years to build the region’s first diversity focused startup accelerator, and that’s really where I got my chops, taking these innovative ideas around diversity inclusion, leading big teams, multi-year multimillion dollar project and actually execution executing them.
[00:08:47] H.: Because oftentimes what I see in diversity inclusion is you’ve got these like incredible ideas, but can you actually operationalize them and delivering them? That becomes tricky because, and I think because oftentimes the language that’s happening in industry, and the language that happening in community are two very different things.
[00:09:04] H.: And so, it takes a really delicate be to thread to get that done. So, you see like my background and then I was connected with an iconic entrepreneur in the biotech space named Bill Rasteter and Bill Rasteter created a coinvented, a drug back in the late nineties called Rituxan. That drug has gone on to save millions of lives in cancer.
[00:09:25] H.: He is, if the company is used, the drug is used in over 5 million cancer patients. It’s done a hundred billion in sales since he created it, and then he went on to start and sell and start and grow a number of very high profile companies like preceptors and was a founding board member at Illumina and chair of the board for a decade.
[00:09:43] H.: Now I say all that stuff, not to too, this horn, although I think the world of bill, but I say that to say that bill has access into an industry that’s very difficult to access, right? The stem industry is very closed off. It looks like the same type of individual, and so if you call up a company, you’re probably not gonna be received in the same way as that bill calls up a company, it’s just not gonna hit the same way. So, if you’re a teacher, if you’re a principal, if you’re a community org and you’re like, hey, I want to create these opportunities for my students. You’re not, you call up a company Illumina, for example, that company may be super well intentioned and you’ll, but you’re gonna get a manager of diverse inclusion.
[00:10:20] H.: That manager is gonna have four or five different other organizations or teachers or principals that are reaching out to them. And they’re gonna do the absolute best they can. But when bill calls Illumina. It hits differently. Now we’re at the CEO level and the wheels start moving a lot differently.
[00:10:33] H.: And so, we understand that’s an incredible power in this space. Not a lot of organizations can tap into stem leaders the way that we can. So, we leverage that access to be able to open up the doors, and then we create those opportunities for diverse students, and that’s essentially what we do at San Diego.
[00:10:51] H.: We’ve got four areas that we focus on. The first is community activation, which I think is a real key component to this piece about how do you create social capital? We work very hard to build a community, and a community of operators, and so, imagine an event where you have the head of the African heritage employee resource group at Thermo Fisher, right?
[00:11:11] H.: The diversity inclusion manager at META, the diversity inclusion manager. Petco or Facebook right. Meeting with the principal of Lincoln high school or of Morris high school, and then meeting with a college access program for underrepresented students and first gen students, and so we host a quarterly event where we invite all of our key operators in all of our key partners to come together and connect.
[00:11:36] H.: And the idea is to build, the idea is to really connect the people that are actually moving the wheels and bring them together as like a family, right? In that human way that you were talking to earlier. The second thing we do is we’ve got a fellow’s program for high school students.
[00:11:51] H.: Essentially what we’re doing across all of our programs is we’re building a scouting network that goes hyperlocal into high schools. And colleges identifies diverse students that have really shown an excellence and a sort of affinity to stem, and we have these scout networks where maybe it comes from a teacher, that’s your like science teacher.
[00:12:09] H.: That’s hey, you know what? Amy’s been tinkering on it, and she’s like showing something here, maybe it’s from a college access program that says, hey, like H is over here working on this coding, and I don’t quite understand, and so we built the sky network to help us identify these high school students.
[00:12:24] H.: We bring them into our programs and then we fortify. We provide a, they do a rotation-based program where each rotation, they visit a different type of stem company. So, one week they’ll go to Illumina to visit a medical technology company. Then they’ll go to neuro a biotech company. Then they’ll go to ViaSat a high-tech company, and then they’ll go to Dr.
[00:12:42] H.: A venture back startup. To show them the real breadth and depth of opportunities in stem careers, and then we provide them financial support, but holistic financial support. So, we give scholarships, we give a food stipend. So, each of our fellows gets a hundred dollars a month to provide food for them, fresh produce.
[00:12:59] H.: They get transportation stipend, and they also get an experience stipend because each of them are paired with a mentor for a year, and we invest in strengthening that relationship. So, we provide $50 a month for that mentoring pair to meet every month and it doesn’t roll over, and so they can go get poke bowls and go on a hike.
[00:13:18] H.: They can go to this coding panel that they’re learning from. They can go to an event, and the idea is that we’ve got to invest in, in strengthening these bonds these students have with stem professionals and we have to invest in that, that cost money, and so imagine it, it’s pretty simple if you and I, every month Amy hung out, and we had to spend 50 bucks and we had to do something for an entire year. What is our what does our relationship look like after 12 months? You know me, I know you we’ve invested, we’ve got gone through experiences, right? So now when it’s time to apply for college, now it’s time to apply for a job.
[00:13:51] H.: What’s that relationship look like, and so we make sure that we’re investing in these sort of human connections throughout our program. So that’s our squared fellows program. We’ve got our squared scholars, which essentially is our funding arm for scholarships, the key thing here is scholarships.
[00:14:04] H.: Aren’t new, and so we, we really believe that money is not new in this space and that it can’t just be about money. It has to be pairing this financial support with real human connection that really makes a difference. So, when we give out a scholarship, we see ourselves as strategic investors in these students.
[00:14:21] H.: And so, every student is paired with a yearlong mentor to help that is a stem professional. That’s working in the field that can help support and illuminate their path into stem, and then finally, we’ve got our squared interns program, which pairs paid internship opportunities at stem driven companies with college students that are ready, diverse college students that are ready.
[00:14:40] H.: And so essentially, we built a scouting network that allows us to go hyper local on campus. So, beyond the career center, beyond the handshake app and allows us to know who’s leading the MBA program at RA school, right? Who’s the president of the women in mathematics club at UC San Diego, who’s the Dean of the stem school at CSU San Marcos, and so what we’re able to do is solve a real problem for companies where. They post an opportunity with us, they’re looking for diverse candidates, we can immediately put that out through our scout network of about 30 Scouts, across eight institutions that are local on campus.
[00:15:16] H.: And now we’re starting to collect real candidates that are diverse, that fit our profile, and then we act as an internal referral for the company. So now the company pulls that student out of the application pool and sends it directly to the hiring manager, and this is massive, right? When you think that 7,000 applicants will apply for 80 internship slots at one of the biggest life science companies here in San Diego.
[00:15:39] H.: So now we’re able to move that student from one to 7,000, which is probably gonna be cut out of the algorithm, and we’re able to then pull it to maybe one of a few dozen that a hiring manager will definitely look at, and so we’re able to increase those odds and we’ve had some really great success and we haven’t even.
[00:15:53] H.: Fully publicly launched the program and we’ve done some really great stuff with it. So, you can see the pipeline that we’re underpinning. We build community on the front end, gets everyone connected, excited to build the mojo that’s needed to really support this community that then feeds into identifying fellows and high school students that we can support.
[00:16:10] H.: As they’re making that jump into college, really showing them the breadth and depth of opportunities. Then we provide scholarships with mentorship to ensure that they’re belayed that they are grounded to an industry, right? That there’s no drop off that there’s someone that can help navigate to them, and then we place them in internships that oftentimes can become the gateway to full-time employee.
[00:16:29] H.: And we do that, and hopefully over the years, if we can do that a hundred times with a hundred mentors, that’s 200 people, you do that for five, 10 years. You’ve got 2000 people that you’re starting to work with in your city, and then you can think about the, what the scale will look out after that.
[00:16:44] H.: So that’s SD two. That’s how we.
[00:16:47] Amy: What I love about this is that you’re not just dropping them at the door and saying good luck. You’re giving them the same connection points that a well-connected person would have. To do exactly what people have been doing in these industries for decades.
[00:17:04] Amy: It’s just now different people can do those things.
[00:17:06] H.: That’s right. It’s right.
[00:17:09] Amy: You don’t have to born with the access. You get it through SD2.
[00:17:10] H.: You get it through SD2 and that’s where Bill and our board becomes really critical because at the end of the day, Bill has made a lot of people very successful.
[00:17:19] H.: Our board has made a lot of people very successful, and I think with diversity inclusion initiatives, oftentimes what I say is that they move from community into industry, right? It’s usually someone that’s like super well intentioned community leader. That’s like we gotta get into stem, and then they go and they build this great, incredible organization on the ground boots on the ground, the community, but they didn’t make anyone any successful in stem. So, it’s similar to like the VC, they always say don’t like cold call a VC, don’t call cold call an investor. Cause they’re not gonna invest in.
[00:17:50] H.: You find someone that, that they know, and have them make the introduction, and that’s the same thing, right? It’s like the, we really have built this organization to come from industry into community, and I think that’s, what’s allowed us to be much more effective because we’ve got a real mandate in the industry.
[00:18:10] H.: And so therefore, and we’ve built programs that align with the industry. So, for example, you hear oftentimes like I need a guaranteed internship. You hear that a lot in the community? No, no company that is scaling rapidly, no company that has 10 K filings or investors that they have to report to is gonna give you guaranteed anything.
[00:18:30] H.: Because the market changes things change, and I can’t guarantee a slot, and even if I did, then what happens is it feels like charity, then somebody who’s running the internship program’s oh my God, I gotta take care of Amy again, she’s coming in today at two, and so we gotta help her out hey, just spin in circles for the day and then leave and I’ll sign whatever paperwork.
[00:18:49] H.: But if you meet the company and you say, all I want is a guaranteed look. Oh, I can guarantee the look, and then if you’re bringing great candidates, now they’re gonna really look right? and so I think it’s really thinking about your program in terms of how are you designing it to meet the industry, especially the stem industry, where it’s at, and then working from there, as opposed to trying to build a in community and then enter an industry.
[00:19:12] H.: That’s essentially a port that’s really difficult to access, and I think that’s what makes our approach a bit unique.
[00:19:20] Amy: About this is so you’ve got this amazing program that is incredibly well thought out, right? From like a design thinking standpoint, you’ve covered every aspect of it. A lot of it though, seems to be, it seems to hinge on the access that your co-founder has.
[00:19:36] Amy: In this space and I’m thinking about what you’re doing. I’m like, wow, they need this in every city, right? San Diego’s not a major world city, it’s a good size city. There are lots of good size cities around the US. How replicatable is this without having a bill?
[00:19:52] H.: You think there’s Bills in every city.
[00:19:55] H.: And the reality is, so there’s 2 sort of responses to that. One is that we’ve already got interest to create base squared, New York squared, and you can see how this kind of can scale out, right? Because if you’re able to create a model that connects academia, community and industry, you can have a real powerful network for diverse talent, and everyone’s looking for diverse talent.
[00:20:15] H.: And if you would look at the chart essentially back to your point, we essentially are using Bill and the board’s leverage right now and access, but the over time, if we do this right, then what happens is less and less. We’ll need that access and more and more the student and the reputation will proceed then.
[00:20:32] H.: So that now, when you’re like, oh, you’re a squared fellow, I already know you’re a real one, and the re the hypothesis here is that, no community has a monopoly on incredible talent. One, two, we haven’t been tapping into diverse talents, right? So, there is going to be unbelievable talent statistically, in these communities that no one else is looking at.
[00:20:51] H.: And so, what happens is you, if you, if we’re able to do our job well and connect these companies, cuz it’s not a charity we’re moving away from this sort of charity foundation relationship to an HR talent economic case for what we do, we provide incredible talent to these companies. First and foremost, that talent just so happens to be diverse.
[00:21:12] H.: And so, what happens is now you bring, you’re able to identify this incredible talent that then goes into your company and they’re sick, they’re amazing, they crush it. The company forgets that Bill was the reason why he opened the door, now they’re gonna come back for more because they had this incredible talent in the first place.
[00:21:27] H.: And I think companies are there and I think the student and the talent is there, and so we’ve seen time after time when we place a student in an internship. They’re over the moon because it’s so it the person is an incredibly talented individual that just so happens to be diverse, and so the more and more you can permeate through these companies, the less and less you actually need a Bill, right?
[00:21:49] H.: You just need this incredible talent, and because nobody for the last hundreds of years have ever tapped into what’s happening in Southeast San Diego or south Chicago, or you name the area in Indianapolis, for example, right? then there’s no, there’s statistically, it’s impossible to say that in all this talent, there’s not gonna be incredible people.
[00:22:08] H.: And frankly, I think they have the grit. They have the, the hardworking experience, to do incredible work, and if they go and do that, then the reputation then proceeds them and they no longer need the door. It’s just opening the door one time, that’s the part that they can’t get in once they’re in. We’ve seen time and time again, what diverse people can do. We’ve seen Katherine Johnson, we’ve seen what happens the, this guy, Greg Robinson who basically saved the web telescope project from going to disaster and then we just got these incredible images.
[00:22:41] H.: That was a black man that led that team ,that program was failing 8 billion over budget and this black man came in and changed the game, and so we know what diverse talent can do if given an opportunity.
[00:22:55] Amy: For people who are listening to this, who wanna learn more, wanna connect with you, wanna support the work you’re doing?
[00:23:00] Amy: Where can they find you? And what do you need?
[00:23:03] H.: Yeah, that’s great. Thank you. So, San Diego squared, you can find us at sd2.org, that’s the numeral two, you can email us at team@SD2.org. The biggest needs that we have are obviously we’re nonprofit. So, I would be not good at my job if I didn’t ask for, we are looking for funding always.
[00:23:21] H.: So, if you’re a foundation, if you’re a corporation, if you’re an individual donor, that’s really interested in investing in kind of a new approach that’s got a lot of legs, I think please reach out to us, but really what we’re looking for the most is the human capital. So, we’re looking for mentors mostly locally, but we do take some virtual mentors.
[00:23:40] H.: We’re piloting to see what that looks like and how that experience can happen. So, we’re always looking for mentors. We’re always looking for companies that are interested in hosting students, whether that be through internships, college students. So, if you’re looking for interns and you’re really interested in diverse, students would love to connect with you as well as site visits for our high school students.
[00:23:59] H.: So, if you wanna host, if you’ve got a presence in San Diego and you’re interested in hosting students to come and check out your space we would love to talk to you as well.
[00:24:09] Amy: H, I wanna thank you so much for sharing your story your founder story and this amazing program that you’ve created.
[00:24:16] Amy: And, it always warms my heart, right? When somebody says, look, we’re not just gonna do the right thing, we’re gonna do it in the right way so that it sticks and it’s sustainable and it’s valuable for the long term because that’s where, that’s where the real results come from. Thank you so much for the work you’re doing and for sharing so much of it with.
[00:24:35] H.: Yeah, no happy to, it’s an honor to do this work, I feel very fortunate and privileged to do this work, and I would just respond by saying thank you, right? and you are lifting the voices of so many people, and I think oftentimes there’s incredible work being done. We do a terrible job of sharing their stories and lifting their voices and you’re doing that.
[00:24:54] H.: And so, I would just express my appreciation and thanks for you for lifting our voice and our journey because it means a lot.
[00:25:03] Amy: I am absolutely happy to do that. Thank you.
[00:25:53] Amy: That’s it for this week’s episode of the including you podcast. Join me next week when my guest will be Dr. Olivia Cook from the center for economic and social justice at my college in Alabama.