I worried coming out would hurt my company. But business has only gotten better

Mike Stephenson featured in Fast Company

addy CEO and co-founder Mike Stephenson talks often about leadership, technology, entrepreneurship and real estate investing. His ideas, innovative spirit and eagerness to collaborate help guide addy in making real estate accessible for all..

Recently, he penned a personal story about his own journey and how his life experience led to more empathy, inclusivity and diversity in the office.

This article originally appeared in Fast Company on November 20, 2021

I worried coming out would hurt my company. But business has only gotten better

The experience only helped me develop empathy and learn how to create more inclusive workplaces, writes this finance CEO.

When I came out professionally, there was no big party or public announcement. It happened gradually.

I’d lived in places where the laws dictate not everyone is equal and was all too aware in some situations, it is dangerous for people in the LGBTQ2s+ community to be themselves.

While I knew coming out in Vancouver, Canada, wouldn’t mean risking my life, I still had fears. I worried for my husband’s safety and my own. I worried I’d lose friends—and business. My coming out wasn’t momentous, and that was a privilege. For me, with privilege comes the responsibility to help make space for those who face more adversity.

Why I chose to come out at work

Growing up biracial and gay I experienced life through the lens of being different. It gave me what I like to think of as my superpower: Empathy.

This lens served me well when I was living in Singapore—one of 69 countries in the world where homosexuality is criminalized. The community my now husband and I found there was kind, but we were acutely aware our relationship would not be officially recognized. It’s one of the reasons we moved back to Canada, to raise our future kids where they could see their family represented. And while we’ve moved the needle toward equality in the U.S. and Canada, up until 2020’s Supreme Court ruling, it was still legal to fire workers for being gay, bisexual, or transgender, in more than half the U.S. states.

Even in the most inclusive workplaces, employees wrestle with how much of themselves to share. McKinsey found one in four LGBTQ2s+ respondents are not broadly out at work and nearly half felt they had to come out multiple times a week—an enormous burden.

While my family’s safety and financial security aren’t threatened on a daily basis, I’m not immune to doubt. There are times among certain groups of people where I’ll realize I’m filtering myself. Sometimes it’s as simple as not correcting someone when they ask what plans my wife and I have for the weekend.

Yet, I’m aware being able to live authentically is a privilege. Studies show people who feel safe to come out at work are happier, more satisfied with their job, and proud of their work than those who feel the need to stay closeted. It also reduces the stress caused by living a double life.

For me, coming out as a gay CEO was one tangible thing I could do to create more representation for LGBTQ2S+ people in leadership.

What our progress now means for later years

Coming from my own lens of difference has changed how I build my company—through intentional diversification. It’s my belief that everyone should see themselves in the world around them, including the workplace.

The way I see it, my team and their unique experiences and identities are my company’s greatest asset. It is our experiences that give us insight and equip us to better understand our stakeholders, solve complex problems and get back up when mistakes are made.

The business case for building a diverse workplace has been proven, time and again, but  there’s no magic formula. True inclusivity comes from a genuine desire to embrace differences and make accommodations so all employees feel respected and can thrive.

For example, why should employees with non-English names have to adopt pseudonyms that are easier for their colleagues to pronounce? In our office we show our coworkers the respect of learning to say their names correctly.

We also work to be better allies to our teammates who speak English as a second (or third) language. The onus isn’t on the speaker to make sure they’re understood – it’s on the listener to make sure they understand.

Building a culture where difference is respected and everyone is valued for their perspectives also sets the foundation for diversity in leadership—something we desperately need more of.

Why who we see in power matters

Western society has traditionally treated white, cisgendered, heterosexual culture as the norm. I know firsthand what it’s like to walk into a room and wonder how you measure up because you don’t look or act like most cultural role models.

I think of the different aspects of my identity as touch points. Maybe knowing the boss is gay will help one person feel like less of an outsider. Employees seek workplaces where being their whole selves won’t hurt their career development or personal lives. LGBTQ2S+ workers are nearly twice as likely to feel included at work if they know company leaders support diversity and inclusion.

And it’s not just my team who benefits—our customers do too. The more diverse our company is, the more likely we are to have empathy for our customers’ needs. For example, one of our Gen Z service reps might have more insight into how a college student perceives their investment future than I do as a Gen Xer.

It’s my goal to ensure our customers see themselves reflected in our company—it’s just good business.

And I’ve come to recognize, coming out as a gay leader isn’t just about me. It’s about carving a path for generations to come. As a real estate investor, I am trained to think about how my investment will pay off one or two decades ahead. I look at coming out in the same way. My hope is it will have a ripple effect. By creating intentional dialogue, I might influence harmful policies and remove some of the fear for future leaders. After all, when people are given the space to be seen and valued for who they are, there is no greater return.


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