Hailing from Los Angeles, Tai Esteban Sunnanon is today’s renaissance man, focused on solving some of the world’s most pressing problems through social entrepreneurship.
Tai is currently the Founder/CEO of the Strategic Insights Group, a mission-driven consulting firm; Founder/CEO of The Life Coach Expert, an executive coaching firm; Co-Founder/CEO of Walking Soap, a premium-quality, antibacterial handwipe that funds Covid-19 relief efforts; and a Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
Previously, Tai taught social entrepreneurship and leadership courses at Harvard University. He has received numerous international and national awards for his work in social entrepreneurship and social change, including government service medals from Palau, Philippines, Thailand, and United States.
Having founded a total of 5 social enterprises over the past 25 years, Tai believes that solving some of our global issues comes from the right mix of: community collaboration, political sway, incentives, big data, risk-taking, and tons of patience.
Tai speaks seven languages and is learning his eighth, Hungarian.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
Through trial and error. I started my first social enterprise when I was 16-years-old, focused on supporting homeless youth through academic support, mentoring, and public policy. But I didn’t have the big picture in mind. I was narrowly focused on building my organization, raising funds, and supporting at-risk youth. I didn’t have the awareness of the systemic issues that lead to homelessness.
What I understood years later is that virtually all of our pressing problems—be it social, economic, political, environmental—are systemic, with deep roots across various sectors.
Social entrepreneurship is a way to help solve those problems. I define it as creating or advancing a social business that directly responds to a social dilemma. Name the issue you care most about and there’s bound to be a social enterprise that exists to address it.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Routines, shaken, not stirred. I like my early morning routines, consisting of espresso, exercise, and empowerment. If I get those out of the way early on, then nothing can rob me of them later on in the day. Empowerment is my own way of saying that I like to motivate myself in the morning. I like learning something new, either from a podcast or from writing.
The “shaken, not stirred” part means that while I like routines, I can do something completely different that is fun/creative/valuable. Last month, I spent an hour writing a song. I’ll go surfing before dawn. I discovered a new trail to hike. Sometimes, you have to shake up your routines to get a better perspective of yourself and how you want the day to turn out.
How do you bring ideas to life?
By thinking big. When I’m in ideation-mode, I like thinking big. I use a 2-min protocol when I’m at work with my team. We get 2-min—uninterrupted—to write any idea down regarding the topic at hand. Every idea is written on the poster paper. Then, we spend 2-min to pick our top 3 ideas. Followed by 2-min to pick our top idea. Followed by a lengthy discussion of what we landed on (not always timed).
What’s one trend that excites you?
Big Data. The term was refined in the early 2000s to signify the capture and use of large volumes of data to inform business decisions and output. While mainly used in the tech industry, I like the concept of Big Data for social entrepreneurship.
What do I mean by this? Today, we have a lot of qualitative and quantitative data on the Why a problem exists—be it environmental degradation, lack of drinkable water in rural villages, poor quality education, systemic racism, homelessness, you name it. The next step is to aggregate the data to be able to effect positive change. Social movements today have been emboldened by software and tech platforms, no doubt, but also by stories over the decades.
Why am I excited? Because with ample evidence, we can tackle systemic issues that underline some of our most pressing problems. Case in point, healthcare in the United States. It’s in shambles and the pandemic brought all of it to light. We have decades-worth of rich data on: barriers to entry, prohibitive costs, stories of heartache, personal debt, insurance claims, malpractice, etc. to finally say, the system is broken and we need to fix it.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Bold visions. I’m more interested in how to change systems to improve the quality of life for those less fortunate than I am about what I’m having for lunch. In order to capture and process bold visions, I have to engage with new ways of thinking, doing and being. I have three mentors, read tons of articles, and journal constantly. The combination of these helps me to think big.
What advice would you give your younger self?
“You’re exactly where you need to be.” Each heartache, failure, slip, and fall comes with new learning, but I have to go through the fire to come out a phoenix.
When I started my first social enterprise, I made many mistakes and those mistakes kept me up at night, to the point of debilitation. I didn’t realize that I had to experience them, live them, and learn from them. Welcome to adulthood. It’s clear as day now that mistakes of yesteryear were the best stepping stones to my growth and evolution as a social entrepreneur.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Pickle juice is tasty. I gagged when I first tried it. How could something so healthy have that smell and taste? Then, I realized that I was narrow-minded. The benefits are too numerous to denounce, so my trick was to smile before drinking it. Now I have 3 jars of it in my fridge. Changing my mindset has broadened my perspective on life.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
· Sleep for at least 6.5 hours every day.
· Journal constantly.
· Hike in a National Park.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Core values. This is a HUGE game changer. Early in my career, I was just working all the time. Eventually, I would get burned out. Then I asked myself (as many of us have during the pandemic), What really matters to me?
I realized that I didn’t know what my values were. Sure, family and team work were some of them, but what were my true core values? When I started to name them across the three dimensions of my life—personal, career, and relationships—many lightbulbs in my head and spirit turned on. What may have mattered to me five years ago, was no longer a priority for me now. So, every year, my staff and I list our top 5 core values, but the only ones we share are the ones related to our company’s mission.
If you take the time to write down your top 5 core values in your personal life, career, and relationships, you’ll either be pleasantly surprised or be affirmed in what you already know or both. Either way, you’ll align your life much better to your values.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I didn’t know my core values. I enjoyed being a workaholic and wore it as a badge of honor. But it always comes with a price. About 10 years ago, when I started listing my core values, big shifts started to occur at the center of my being.
Embodying your core values is transformational. I started to let go of notions that being a workaholic meant being successful. I started living my truth and stepping into my authenticity as a leader at work. For instance, I was always chasing after the dollar. Wealth was important to me, but I missed out on the internal, more spiritual aspect of living. When I focused on activities that I enjoyed, like spending more time surfing or being in nature, I became more centered as a person. I learned to sleep better (and stop lying to myself that I could operate at 100% with only 4 hours of sleep). And I smiled more.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
How about three ideas?
· Software that aggregates qualitative data.
· A double-sided jigsaw puzzle.
· A device that helps seniors back on their feet after a fall.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I transferred $100 from my checking account to my Capital One savings account. If I have a choice to spend $100 now or think about my future, I’ll think about my future. Transferring the $100 to my savings account reminded me to stay disciplined with my finances, especially during the insane times we are in.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I really like getAbstract.com. It’s a leading business and personal book summary company. In about 10-15min, I can read a robust summary of a management book, for example, and start applying key principals to my business.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
· That book you’ve been telling yourself you’ll eventually read. Pick it up today and read at least the first chapter.
· How to Sit by Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s a pocket book on meditation and stillness. I spend about 15-min in the mornings meditating on one page.
· Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson. This book is brilliant and provides insights to why some nations are rich or poor and why some prosper, while others do not. This is one of the books to read in its entirety, all 500+ pages of it.
What is your favorite quote?
· “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” — Fred DeVito
· “Love is simple. It is your mind that complicates things.” — Fortune cookie.
- List your top 5 core values today and take stock of how they may have changed in the last 5 years.
- “You’re exactly where you need to be.”
- Keep a hand-held journal with you wherever you go and jot down any and all musings, insights, and ideas.
- Find your pickle juice.
- Read the first chapter of that book you’ve been procrastinating on.
Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.