Photo from the ’92 Griffin
He was dumbfounded to receive both an acceptance letter and a full scholarship to Reed.
He almost didn’t make it past the first quarter of his freshman year. Listening to his classmates talk abstractly about the problems of the world, Puon felt like a fish out of water. Some of his friends transferred after the first semester, and he considered doing the same. He had no money to go home during winter break. By the time Paideia commenced, he had come to the realization that it was up to him to take a stance and make each day better.
Like many Reedies before and after, Puon found solace in his studies. At Reed he honed his analytical skills and learned how to ask the hard questions. “I wasn’t the smartest, the strongest, or anything,” he says. “But I knew that if I could find really great people and learn from them, that over a period of time with hard work, the lessons I learned from those folks would eventually translate to success. You can’t control the conditions you are given, only the effort you put into things.”
He was influenced by Peter Steinberger [political science 1973–] and eventually switched his major to economics, which allowed him to zero in on his passion: ecology. Economics, the study of how people create economic systems and survive within them, is human ecology, Puon says. Unless people can sustain themselves, it is not possible to safeguard the environment. In his junior year at Reed, he was awarded the Mintz Scholarship, created by Walter Mintz ’50 [trustee 1969–2002] to provide critical support for economics majors. After writing his thesis, The Economics of Institutions: Policy Implications for America’s Schools, Puon attended the University of Chicago, where he earned a master’s degree in business administration and finance.
Puon is now a senior vice president with Wells Fargo Bank in Palo Alto, where he heads up a clean technology group. His team works with companies that manufacture, market, or develop clean technology products and services, including 8 of the top 10 Chinese solar companies.
Puon and his wife, Annie, live in Los Altos, California, with their four children. They are involved with a number of Cambodian charities, including a children’s hospital, and have adopted an orphaned girl who lives in Cambodia. “I don’t think opportunities came to me just so I could make a bunch of money and own a lot of toys,” he says. “I wanted to figure out ways to engage with the world.”
Given that his mother was illiterate and he didn’t start school until he was 10 years old, the probabilities were low for his attending a college like Reed. Having benefited from many opportunities, Puon feels it is his duty to give back.
He was the first person to pledge to fund a Reed Centennial Scholarship, which offers Annual Fund donors the option of making a multiyear commitment to a scholarship that will carry their name. The scholarships are flexible and immediately expendable, allowing the college to allocate funds to meet students’ immediate financial needs.
“Somebody provided the resources for me to go to Reed and get a great education, and now it’s my turn to pass on that opportunity,” he says. “I’m very much middle class in the way I live, but it’s about budgeting. I’d rather give a little bit at a time than wait until I become a millionaire to give back.”
Success has many factors, he tells the young people he mentors: among them is hard work and help from people who care about us and want us to succeed. And while there are always people who are better connected, with more resources, he has discovered that these people usually welcome someone who brings rigorous thought to the conversation.
From the deck of the Kien Svay restaurant, Puon nods to the woman in the boat. He will take an order of the fried grasshoppers. She fills a paper cone, and when he takes it, he notices they are still warm from the hot oil. It is ironic, he thinks, that the taste of hardship has become a delicacy. The fried crunch gives way to notes of salt and sugar, and he is filled with memories bitter and sweet.