Tai Esteban Sunnanon was born in Houston, TX, but grew up in Los Angeles, CA, where he calls home today. For the past 25 years, he’s been a social entrepreneur, global speaker and investor in solutions that will help make the world a better place. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he co-founded Walking Soap, a plant-based, antibacterial handwipe that helps to fund COVID-19 relief efforts in communities of color (www.WalkingSoap.com).
Why did you decide to create your own business?
The pandemic was a game changer for everyone, and not in a good way. I had to learn how to adapt to a changing economy that no one had a pulse on. In the face of my own financial hardships, I asked the basic question, “What will I do for work now?” So, I went back to basics of social entrepreneurship, which is to create a business that responds to a social dilemma. In April 2020, the idea of Walking Soap came into being. Walking Soap is a premium quality antibacterial handwipe that moisturizes the hands and face without the smell and stickiness of other hand sanitizers. Plus, proceeds help fund COVID-19 relief efforts in communities hit hardest by the pandemic. We partnered with Tulane University School of Medicine in vaccine outreach and public health education.
How do you motivate others?
I’ve learned that there’s no one size fits all approach to this. You first have to know your audience, but I mean really know them. At Walking Soap, for instance, I’ve recruited my staff from my previous company, so we’ve known each other for years. Whether you’re a new member to the team or seasoned, it’s important to give people a voice.
I motivate others by ensuring that everyone on my team has a seat at the table. Every voice counts. You can give me feedback on our product, business model, or my leadership and I’ll gladly listen. You’ll be surprised what you learn and how you and your company can grow exponentially when you give people a seat at the table.
How has your company grown from its early days to now?
Since we launched Walking Soap in April 2020, we’re just now celebrating our one-year anniversary! Imagine having a solid business plan for a startup in the beginning of the pandemic and having to literally toss out the playbook every month since then. All the rules of engagement changed last year. We’ve had to ideate and innovate at speeds even I’m not accustomed to. But that’s a good thing.
Because the hustle has been magnified. Which means that my team and I had to study and learn where the market for PPE was headed and who was the ideal customer for a premium quality antibacterial handwipe. Our customer base kept changing, but at least we were able to sell our product along the way!
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Nature. That’s my go-to for all things inspiration. I like being in the forest, wilderness, meadows, desert, mountain peak, you name it. I feel one with myself when I’m in the great outdoors. The air feels fresher and I’m more in tune with my spirit and soul. There’s nothing like taking in the scenery, smells, colors, and noises around you.
Apart from nature, being around idea-makers inspires me to think more creatively. Half of my initial ideas suck, but the point is to build off of them until the winning idea emerges. When I’m with idea-makers, we understand the value of bad ideas as the starting block for good ideas to come to fruition. That type of ideation always makes me smile.
How do you maintain a solid work life balance?
You make time for the things you care about. It’s that simple. I used to idealize the ‘workaholic’ syndrome, as if it was something to praise. Luckily, I love my job. But I also love my family, nature, spy novels, vegan food, and travel. So, I make time for those things. And trust me, it’s not an even 50-50 split of my time. If I spend the entire weekend just with my family, that’s golden and I’m completely satisfied, without ever having to check work emails. Every person has to determine what they care about. Then, put energy into those things, people or activities.
What has been the hardest obstacle you’ve overcome?
Netflix! I started binge watching shows at the beginning of the pandemic and that sinking feeling you get after completing a series made me yearn for something different. After a month of constant Netflix, I switched to reading, writing, and speaking on social entrepreneurship and that brought me a sense of normalcy I needed again.
What is one piece of advice that you have never forgotten?
“You’re exactly where you need to be.” My mentor shared these words of wisdom with me about 20 years ago and it stuck. Whether I’m going through a downturn in my business (aka Pandemic 2020) or on cloud 9 in life, I was where I needed to be. I had to experience those moments because each one meant something, like an opportunity to grow, change, and/or self-reflect.
What trends in your industry excite you?
I can’t get enough of understanding how globalization is impacting the world around us. Whether its emerging technology, socio-politics, financial markets environmental impacts, or macroeconomics, I’m fascinated by big ideas and big data that shape our daily lives. This collective information and knowledge helps me to understand how we better improve the lives and social conditions of those in need. And it was thinking about globalization that evolved into creating Walking Soap!