Olympia is full of people that are committed to making our city a wonderful place to work and live. Recently appointed Olympia City Council member Yến Huỳnh is a born and raised Olympian with a passion for the city and a mission to help promote our local economy by supporting the entrepreneurs within it. She also joined the Thurston Economic Development Council (EDC) Board of Directors at the start of this year and is grateful for so many opportunities to help make a difference.
Yến decided at a young age that she wanted to go to college. This would be a milestone for her and her family because she is a first-generation college graduate. Her brother and she were the first in their family to graduate college. “We didn’t have a lot of educational opportunities in my family because we are a refugee family,” Yến explains. Many of her immediate family members and relatives had pursued small business ownership in lieu of a formal education, and had been quite successful in their endeavors. After some uncertainty and deliberation, Yến realized that entrepreneurship was where she wanted to focus her studies.
Yến started out by getting her Associate’s Degree in Business from South Puget Sound Community College. She then transferred to The Evergreen State College to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Business, Management, and Entrepreneurship.
After graduating, she began working at Capital Region Educational Service District 113 in Tumwater as an education advocate and academic coach serving marginalized youth for GED attainment and college access. “It was there I started thinking about not working within a box but helping to create the policies and guidelines that people can work from,” she says. This prompted Yến to return to Evergreen to complete a master of public administration with an emphasis in public policy.
Yến’s public service experience continued after she earned her master’s degree. She did her fellowship with Results, an organization focused on bringing an end to poverty on a national and global level. She later moved into a position with the Washington State Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises as the supplier diversity program specialist. “Diversity and inclusion have been on the forefront of folks minds,” Yến says. “We talk about it a lot but don’t talk about it enough as it pertains to business. When we talk about disparity, the wealth gap is the largest opportunity.” This experience taught her so much and further solidified her feeling that the best way to support a community is through its small businesses.
Yến was grateful for the opportunity to serve this department for three years before moving on to the Washington State Department of Corrections to work in her current role as an equity and social justice consultant. “I work to enhance organizational cultures and processes with the ultimate goal of increasing reentry back into the community and reducing recidivism,” Yến shares. “The idea is that if we have an equitable and socially just workforce, we will have better outcomes.” Working here feeds her desire to influence change through policies and procedures, and she loves learning about how to create equity in new ways.
Yến looks for ways to engage with and support the community even beyond her professional roles. She is a former Olympia Film Society volunteer and former commissioner for the Olympia Planning Commission. She is currently an active member of the Olympia Area Chinese Association. When the opportunity arose to join the Olympia City Council, Yến knew she wanted to go even further to connect with the city she loves. “If I am going to contribute my skills anywhere, it should be here,” she says. “What better way to do it than to have a seat at the table.” After interviewing with the current city council members, Yến was appointed in January of 2021.
Every city council member chooses committees to be a part of, and for Yến, the Thurston EDC board was the perfect choice. “The first time I had heard about the EDC was when I was in grad school,” Yến recalls. “The Executive Director Michael Cade came and gave a talk.” From then on, she has been impressed with the vision and efforts of the EDC, such as the training initiatives and resource allocation they conducted even during the pandemic. Joining their policy board has allowed Yến to support small businesses in a new way. She also has a unique opportunity to connect with the public and private sector on the board, which provides a great perspective on the community’s many needs. “My favorite part has been learning from folks,” Yến says. “That’s the beauty of getting such a diverse group of people together.”
Yến is honored to have the chance to serve the community she loves as a Thurston EDC board member and city council member. Since she was appointed during an election year, she is currently running a campaign to maintain her seat on the Olympia City Council. “I hope to retain this position, but either way, I will be pleased as pie just to have this opportunity and to do right by our community,” she says. Our community is lucky to have people like Yến that are so passionate about our city.