SEVEN Talk, by Tai Huynh ’20: “80 Days Around the Mustache”

Episode Summary

Today’s episode is a recording of a SEVEN Talk from the 2022 Alumni Forum. This talk, given by Tai Huynh ’20, is entitled, “80 Days Around the Mustache.” Tai is a Chapel Hill Town Council Member and the co-founder and CEO of Acta Solutions LLC.

Episode Notes

Today’s episode is a recording of a SEVEN Talk from the 2022 Alumni Forum. This talk, given by Tai Huynh ’20, is entitled, “80 Days Around the Mustache.” Tai is a Chapel Hill Town Council Member and the co-founder and CEO of Acta Solutions LLC.

You can watch all of the SEVEN Talks on our YouTube channel

More about Tai

Tai Huynh ’20 is a co-founder at Acta Solutions and a sitting member of the Chapel Hill Town Council. Born to Vietnamese refugees, Tai was a real estate agent before attending UNC Chapel-Hill as a first-generation college student. At UNC, he graduated with a bachelor’s in computer science with minors in anthropology and business administration, was a founding member of the UNC Institute of Politics, and was a collegiate boxer. Tai became the first Vietnamese-American elected to public office in North Carolina at 22. As a policymaker, he works to increase access to housing and economic opportunities for underserved families. His GovTech startup powers better customer service in government, and they currently serve over 1.5 million constituents across four states. Tai loves to fish and is still working towards catching a fish in North Carolina.

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Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at

Episode Transcription

I’ve been going through something. Eighty days, I’ve been going through something. I’ve been growing a mustache. As a Vietnamese person, it’s been incredibly trying. Growing facial hair is one of the toughest challenges my people have faced, right under colonization and civil war. Many people told me it wasn’t my calling, but why wasn’t that for me? Everyone was a doubter of what started as a wispy rat on my face, but I had a vision for what it could be, a luscious mustache that would make Montez jealous of me. Whenever people doubt, I become shamelessly stubborn. This shameless stubbornness has led to the things I’m most proud of. You always have skeptics. Not because you’re wrong, necessarily, but because you carry a vision that others can’t see. 

Now, if you haven’t picked up on it yet this weekend, I have what’s been described to me as “squirrel on caffeine energy.” Not typically what we see in public office. So when I ran, I sought out the pioneers in Chapel Hill that ran us first. And I kept hearing the same refrain, “Town council? That’s a bit ambitious for you, eh?” And I’d be like, “Bruh, it’s town council.” It’s not state level office. I’m no Ricky Hurtado, I get that. Many questioned why I was even running, but I had a vision to make Chapel Hill a place where people of all backgrounds could afford a home and provide for their families. Political fundraising as a twenty-two-year-old senior sucks. The maximum individual contribution I could take was $350. I didn’t have a bunch of rich friends who could just write a check for that. I had homies waiting for Pint Night at He’s Not. So I took donations from UNC alum who I knew, a few of whom happened to be developers. Suddenly, a Chapel Hill PAC was screaming, “Tai’s being bought out by developers! He’s corrupt!” And I had a simple response, “If you think I could be bought for $350, you should not vote for me. I cost at least $12,000 a semester. Right, Morehead?” And how could I be in anybody’s pocket when my vision was rooted in my own community? And the proof is in the pudding because my corrupt ass is killing it. My council has approved more affordable housing units in this town than all previous councils combined. We created a workforce development program that serves marginalized youth from refugee families like my own that is the first of its kind in this county. 

But it’s not always the skeptics who steer you wrong. Sometimes it’s those folks that offer well-intentioned advice. As if graduating as a global pandemic was beginning wasn’t difficult enough, I decided to start a company with two classmates. As the world was grinding... or halting, we were grinding. We lived in a duplex at the bottom of the hill. It had no sunlight and flooded constantly. We paid ourselves $750 a month, a far cry from my Morehead stipend. Rent was #350, and I was on a ramen and O.J. diet. On top of that, our business model was a bust. Our original customers, government, were in emergency mode, and engaging with us was literally the last thing they wanted to do. The well-intentioned advice we received was to start looking for jobs in the real world or to sell our business to someone who had money. We were a market research firm one week and then a pharmaceutical drug trial assistance company the next. We had no idea what we were doing.

Our original vision was to make government work better for people. We decided it wasn’t worth working on a startup. Just to work on a startup, you have to be rooted in a vision. So we went back to government, found a problem they couldn’t keep living with, and we’ve built a five million dollar business out of it. The vision was rooted in relationships I formed during my infamous Civic Collab summer in Greensboro and my time on council. Nothing was going to stop me from giving back to the local government officials who make our communities work. 
So you always have naysayers on your journey, and that’s why it’s so important to identify those around you who can see a spark and take a bet on you. 21 Savage has a song that I love called Letter to My Mama. This is my letter to those who took a bet on me, who saw it: Picasso behind the squirrel. 

Dear Mr. Archie, my 5000 Role Models of Excellence mentor, you dealt with me as a young lad in behavioral remediation. You showed me an example of someone, no matter how successful you got, you always found time to give back to rough-around-the-edges lads like me.

Dear Miss Bailey and all my rocks in this community, you took in a hyper student and showed me what it means to be a public servant. 

Dear JC Hudgison, chief building official for the city of Tampa, you took a huge bet on our startup from a cold email I sent you after hearing you on a podcast. And by doing so, you put our business on a whole new trajectory. 

Dear Morehead-Cain, your scholarship has allowed my family to escape a cycle of small visions rooted in survival. We’re a refugee family, and this scholarship is the whole reason I can even grow a mustache in the first place. Just kidding. It’s the reason I can dream and do crazy things like serve in public office and build a business. You invested in me, and now I can invest in others. And that’s what this scholarship is and what community means. It’s both an investment and a duty to invest in others. 

That’s the part where I get a little emotional, because here’s my letter to my mama. The woman who had to leave her homeland, work 80-plus hour weeks to make ends meet, on top of cooking daily, taught me to always show up for others. And most importantly, to be unapologetically myself. If any of you have had the honor of meeting my mom, you’ll know, she’s pretty unique. She embodies shameless stubbornness perfectly. There are no social norms, no societal rules she wouldn’t shatter to take care of her own. She’s constantly saying what’s on her mind, asking others what they need, and is the life of any room she walks into. I strive to be more like her every day. I’m only saying this here because I don’t think I could ever fully convey this to her. As Ocean Vuong says, “To speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.” And if I was as fluent in war as her, I would tell her, “All that I am, all that I will ever accomplish, all that I can even strive for, is because of your sacrifice. The sacrifice of a woman from a small rural village in Vietnam who had no formal education, no wealth, and yet wielded a courage and resilience envied by the greats. Every day when I wake, no matter the weight on my shoulders, I know I can bear it because you bore it first, Ma, you never left my side, and I thank you.”