Hardly anyone who knew Juan Puentes five years ago would have pegged him as Most Likely to Succeed. At the time, he seemed more likely to wind up in jail.
At 17, Puentes was a member of the Rolling 50s Bloods, a gang on the west side of St. Paul. He broke into cars and houses, stole bikes, graffitied buildings, took drugs, sold weed, carried knives — and “used them a few times.”
To Puentes, that was just the norm.
“It’s what my friends were doing, what I was doing,” says Puentes, now an affable 22-year-old. “It seemed like everybody else was doing it, too.”
But at least a couple of people thought Puentes could do better: his school counselor and his mother. Puentes got good grades, including in advanced-placement calculus, even though he skipped classes and racked up suspensions. He did well on tests.
His counselor told him about Genesys Works, then a brand new Twin Cities program. Open to students with challenged backgrounds but high potential, Genesys Works offered eight-week summer training sessions in information technology, followed by yearlong internships.
Get up early to study on nice summer days for eight weeks? Yeah, right. Puentes didn’t even bother to read the brochure.
But his mother found it, read it, and urged her son to apply. To Puentes’ surprise, he was accepted into the program.
Still, he planned on blowing it off. But on the first morning of Genesys training, his mother got him out of bed.
“She didn’t ask if I was going to go,” Puentes said. “She asked what I was going to wear.”
He reluctantly agreed to try it just once, thinking he’d quit. But he kept going. Gradually he realized that the opportunity for an internship with a Fortune 500 company “might be a pretty good thing to do.”
After a summer of learning IT skills, he started an internship with Ecolab Inc. in St. Paul. Mornings he attended school dressed in nice office clothes, afternoons he went to work in his professional job. He drifted away from his old gang friends. He made new friends in Genesys and among his co-workers.
Puentes’ previous idea of the future hadn’t extended beyond what he was going to do on the weekend. He’d given “not a thought in the world” to life after high school. A four-year degree and a professional career weren’t even on his radar.
“I had no idea of that other life, of having that type of job.” Now they became realistic prospects.
After high school, Puentes spoke at a Genesys event to a roomful of local business leaders, Genesys participants and families. “Genesys Works was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “It was the start of a new life for me.”
Puentes won three scholarships, attended Hamline University and graduated last May. Now he’s working full time at Ecolab, where he’s been promoted from the help desk to IT security. He’s enthusiastic about the company and hopes to keep moving up.
With his full-time paycheck, he’s been able to afford a car and an apartment of his own. He helps his mother with her bills and groceries. In January, he’s planning to host family members on a trip to visit relatives in Mexico.
“It’s all working out for me, I guess,” Puentes said.