Exeleon Magazine

Tai Sunnanon: Global Social Entrepreneur and Renaissance Man

Tai Sunnanon_Exeleon Magazine

Our values shape our actions and behavior. We all have a set of values that guide the way we live our lives. These values decide what we do, what we think, and what we feel.

At times, it can be hard to understand why we behave the way we do or what motivates us, but most often it is because of our underlying value system. And once we identify our said values, it becomes easier to overcome challenges and failures, because we realize what we want to achieve and the actions we need to take in order to reach them.

In the same context, having a profound understanding of values over the course of his journey has led Tai Sunnanon to become one of the most dynamic leaders in the world and the face of Exeleon’s, 100 Most Dynamic Leaders of the Year.

Since starting his first business at the age of 16 and establishing his name with seven other ventures over the decades, Tai came to realize that the #1 aspect of leadership that has been the most critical and rewarding for him is values. And learning to live by them. This has empowered him to become a global social entrepreneur and Renaissance man who happens to speak eight languages.

The Value in Values

Tai has always been a curious and driven person. Since a young age, he has spent a lot of time figuring out where he stands and where his life is headed. “Did I want to be a serial entrepreneur, professor, concert violinist, life coach, world traveler? I wasn’t always 100% sure,” recalls Tai.

For Tai, ‘understanding oneself’ was the biggest challenge of his life. “When I wasn’t sure where my career or personal life was headed, I felt like I was in limbo.”

After teaching at Harvard University for a few years, Tai returned home to California to figure out the next steps of his professional journey. As months passed by, he realized that his life trajectory was not in tune with his values. He recalls, “I didn’t even know what my values were. All I knew is that I was stuck in life.”

This very moment made him understand how values drive every person on this planet, whether you realize it or not. It was also the moment where identifying his values would go on to become one of his greatest life lessons. Tai notes that, “Examples of values include: family, health, wealth, curiosity, spirituality, teamwork, independence, charity, companionship, love, hard work, etc. You get to decide what is most meaningful to you.”

Ever since then, Tai has made sure to share the importance of understanding values at every speaking engagement. He also re-evaluates those values every year to see if something has changed in his career, relationships, or himself. “This exercise includes me picking and then ranking five values for each category. Once I understand my top five values, lightbulbs went off in my head. I understood that what was important to me in the past was not as important to me now. And that explains why I was in a rut. Articulating my values could then align the who-I-am with the what-I-want in life.”

Becoming your own Roadblock

Despite this approach, Tai himself became the biggest roadblock during his journey. According to him, a human mind cannot fulfill its desires despite achieving everything in different phases of life.

He recalls his own ideology during his younger years as an example, “It was about achieving status and building my external resume, or the accomplishments that made me look good on paper. And now in my 40s, it’s about what makes me happy and building my internal resume or the things that I want to live by.”

Thus, the biggest learning for Tai came down to knowing his values and being grounded spiritually. He continues saying, “Our species have the greatest ability to adapt and evolve. If we recognize that in ourselves, it’s incredible what we can accomplish. I’m more grounded mentally, physically, and spiritually than I’ve ever been before because I know what my core values are and how to live by them. And I’ve also learned that being in nature grounds me spiritually. If we tap into the spiritual aspects of our lives, we experience tremendous freedom.”

Understanding Social Entrepreneurship

Through each of his organizations, Tai Sunnanon promotes social entrepreneurship, which aims to resolve crucial problems through innovation and a sustained economic business model.

He further mentions that learning from his team to achieve desired results is the secret recipe behind his success. “I’m proud to have mentored each member of my staff and chart a pathway of professional and personal growth for them. You must understand that your company’s number one asset is your people.”

Besides leading these organizations, Tai is also serving as an officer in the U.S. Air Force where he gets to make positive changes at the national level. “Being part of the Air Force allows me to make high-level changes by providing professional development, supporting the underserved, and bringing innovation that supports our mission,” explains Tai.

A Renaissance Man

From starting seven companies to becoming a renowned social entrepreneur, Tai admits to have learned a lot during his journey. He describes those early years to be formidable as he made a lot of mistakes, took lessons from those failures, and found his authentic leadership style through those experiences.

Tai has travelled to over 60 countries, taught at six universities, received national and international awards for his social entrepreneurship work, is an author, speaker, serves on numerous nonprofit boards and is an elected delegate to the California Democratic Party. He still finds time to play the guitar and violin and surf along the Southern California coast.

With all of this learning, Tai embarked on a mission, to help the world become a better place. And he is achieving the same through his two companies and the U.S. Military: Social Good Industries, LLC, a mission-driven products company aimed at addressing some of our most pressing problems; The Life Coach Expert, which provides business and life coaching services; and U.S. Air Force, where he serves as a flight commander

Dynamic Leadership Thoughts

Over the past 25-years, Tai Sunnanon has been practicing, learning, studying, teaching, and fumbling on the topic of leadership. Here are the four characteristics of leadership that he has come to appreciate and embody over time:

Know thyself: Leadership takes on many shapes and sizes. I’ve seen too many leaders try to be someone they are not. I, too, emulated business leaders when I was a young entrepreneur. But I quickly learned that you take the best of what great leaders do and make it your own, rather than be someone you’re not.

Be fully authentic: I used to put on this image that I had all the answers as a business leader and instructor of practice at Harvard University. But leadership is bestowed upon you by others, not a stage you walk onto. If your steps, spirit, and speech are not aligned, you’re not a fully authentic leader. And others know it. It’s hard to follow a leader you don’t see as authentic. And after my first year of teaching, I found my authentic voice.

Operate in ambiguity: Leaders don’t have all the answers, so let’s get that straight right away. Even projecting that you do is a misfire. Learning to operate in ambiguity is one of the most challenging but rewarding characteristics of leadership. Why? Because neither your business nor personal life follows a straight line. And being comfortable with the unknown is important. When the pandemic first hit, I didn’t know for weeks where the economy was headed, and how it was going to affect my business but being able to operate in ambiguity means you can roll with the punches and still thrive.

Learn from your team: When a company asks me to help them improve their business, the first question I ask is, “What input have you received from your staff?” I truly believe that 80% of business challenges can be answered by the employees. They’re in the weeds day in and day out, and can provide useful insights that senior leaders may not be aware of.

Words to Remember By

While everyone prefers to build a name for themselves, achieve success, and grow their brand, Tai wants us to remember that we experience profound change every decade of our lives. What matters now may not matter 10 years from now. Peoples’ mindset and values change, and aspiring individuals, while keeping eyes on their goal, must not forget what they want from their life, especially the ‘Know Thyself’ part.

As such, Tai advises new and seasoned entrepreneurs to stick by their identities more than to their brands or the business. “What kind of personal life do you want to experience?”

“What will be said about you during your eulogy? How will others remember you when you’re gone?” And that’s something Tai wants people to always remember. “I guarantee it won’t be about the million-dollar deal you closed or the house you own. It’s the life you experienced and the soul you cultivated to do good in this world. It’s your internal resume that people will care about and remember you by.”

A Realized Future

Tai’s business journey has never been linear. He has deep gratitude for the same and for what he has been able to do, create, sustain, and live by. And helping others do the same across his companies is his way of paying it forward and giving back.

And today, being in the U.S. Air Force is exactly where Tai imagined himself to be. “I get to bring 25-years of experience to elevate our standards and people and that is an honor.”

To conclude, Tai Sunnanon shares a profound life lesson, “It came from a fortune cookie—from about 15 years ago—that I’ve since framed on my wall. It reads, ‘Love is simple. It is your mind that complicates things.’ When we let go of our ego, overthinking and overanalyzing, our minds experience tremendous freedom. Those negative or obstructive thoughts do not benefit us. Living by our internal resume, not the external one, will be a life well-lived.”

Visit the 100 Dynamic Leaders of the Year page.

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Visit Tai Sunnanon’s Website.

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