In 2020, as the nation grappled with issues of race in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and subsequent mass protests, Bill Rastetter looked at the diversity of the biotech industry he has been a leader in since 1982 and realized that despite its desire to be a diverse industry, most companies lacked the diversity seen in their surrounding communities.
“There’s something wrong with that and saying that for 40 years isn’t sufficient to solve the problem,” Rastetter said. “The conclusion I reached is that we have to reach back and empower students to become STEM aware, STEM curious, STEM committed, STEM educated long before they would ever write a resume and apply for a job.”
That was the initial catalyst of San Diego Squared (SD2), a nonprofit dedicated to connecting underrepresented students in the region to STEM educational and career opportunities.
Rastetter, who’s resume in the biotech world includes leadership roles at leading firms like Neurocrine, Illumina, IDEC, Receptos, Fate Therapeutics and Grail, co-founded SD2 with H. Puentes, who worked in management consultant positions and venture-backed startups in the Bay Area before moving to San Diego and working at Connect, where he helped jumpstart that company’s own initiative dedicated to diversity called Connect All.
An Instant Bond
Rastetter, who was born in Panama, and Puentes, son of Colombian immigrants, were introduced through a mutual friend and although they met for the first time via Zoom, the two bonded instantly over their mutual love for Latin culture and ability to speak Spanish.
“The way that we started our relationship, to me, is indicative of what we’re trying to do in the community,” Puentes said. “You have two people from very different backgrounds, very different perspectives but are coming together for something that is really important to the community.”
Since forming in fall of 2020, SD2 has raised around $3.2 million and enlisted leaders from top area science and tech firms to serve on its board and also mentor students in their programs.
“The ‘secret sauce’ as H always says is a combination of financial and human capital because you can’t solve the problem by simply throwing money at it,” Rastetter said.
SD2 employs its human capital in the form of mentors in its Squared Fellows program – a semester long immersive program that empowers underrepresented grade 10-12 students in San Diego County to explore careers in STEM. Students accepted to the program are assigned a yearlong mentor, tour local tech or biotech companies and are given a laptop and other perks like a $100 a month stipend for food from Specialty Produce.
Connected Intern Program
SD2 also utilizes its connections to San Diego’s business community in its internship program. Companies notify SD2 when they are looking for interns and those opportunities are placed on the SD2.org internship portal. SD2 then utilizes a network of scouts it has recruited from local schools who look out for STEM-talented students who then notify those students of the opportunity.
When students apply, they notify SD2 who then notifies its internal champions at those companies to make a recommendation, pull the applicant out of the file and act as an internal referral.
“This is really powerful when you think a company like Illumina gets thousands of applicants for 80 internship slots,” Puentes said.
SD2 also provides scholarships to students and STEM educators, including $10,000-a-year PATHS scholarships to students pursuing STEM at UC San Diego. There are currently three students with these scholarships at UCSD, and next year there will be six.
In total, SD2 committed over $120,000 in scholarships last year and this year will be closer to $200,000, Puentes said.
In addition to annual growth in scholarships, internships and fellows, Rastetter said SD2’s success is best measured in a “generational evaluation.”
“Look at the three young women of color supported at UCSD. What are they doing 10 years from now and are they employed in STEM careers?” he said. “Do they feel not only included in their workplace, but do they feel like they belong. Additionally, it will be a success if the people in the program then reach back and mentor other upcoming professionals from their communities.”
San Diego Squared
Co-Founders: Bill Rastetter and H. Puentes
Team/Board Members: 13
Mission: Mentor students underrepresented in STEM careers
Funding Raised: $3.2 million
Annual Scholarships: Over $200,000 planned for 2022/23 school year
Notable: SD2’s PATHS scholarships at UC San Diego are named for famous scientists of color, such as Mexican Nobel Prize-winning chemist Mario José Molina and famed NASA mathematician Kathrine Johnson.