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Founder Series: Stephen Yarbrough is Leading by Example

By Neo.Tax Team

5 min read

Stephen Yarbrough is the epitome of a founder who is walking the walk. And if you’re asking, can he talk the talk? Stephen is a veteran of The Big 4 and the IRS… enough said. Despite his resume, what really stands out most about him is his energetic laugh that makes you feel ‌you’re talking to an old college friend–even through the screen during a zoom call. 

An openly out and proud gay man, Yarbrough is taking a “lead by example” approach to visibility, representation, and inclusion. As one of three ethnically and racially diverse founders of Neo.Tax, a tax automation software startup, Stephen believes that senior leadership’s responsibility lies in setting an example and following through. “It's much more empowering [to say] during work conversations, ‘hey, I'm gonna be out of the office for pride, or telling stories and being open about when you got married to your husband or same-sex partner.’ I think that level of openness actually has a bigger impact when it comes from senior leadership. It’s important for senior leadership to be open and comfortable.”

By the same token, Yarbrough acknowledges ‌it isn’t always that easy and that the choice of whether to be out at work shows a bigger cultural shift that needs to happen. 

The reality of what employees have to go through takes Stephen back to a time when discrimination was all too real for him while working for a Big Four accounting firm–back when it was still called the Big 6.

“I was the only intern from my school that didn't get a full-time hire offer on the last day of our internship and it was very clear it was because I was gay. They said it was because I didn't know my target audience, ‘conservative accountants.’ They kept having events where they would ask us to bring our boyfriends or girlfriends, and I brought my boyfriend. And that was not cool back in 1997.”

Fast forward to 2022 and 40% of LGBTQIA employees stated they had witnessed homophobic harassment working at tech companies. A recent ICA & CalCPA study cited a lack of fair treatment, diversity, and inclusion were key reasons LGBTQIA+ identifying professionals are leaving the accounting profession entirely. 

Visibility and cultural shifts go hand in hand. It’s not enough to see an underrepresented person in a position of power and leadership, it’s equally important to see shifts happen within the boots-on-the-ground, day-to-day, watercooler culture that is fundamental to everyday life in a workplace, be it remote or in the office. And for Stephen, affecting positive change in the Fintech space that Neo.Tax occupies is what motivates him. “I think leading by example is important. But I also recognize that organizations have difficulty doing this. You can't just say find the gay partner [at a firm] and push them out there to be open. When you have senior leadership that is open, it makes it easier for everybody else. And that translates into the culture here [at Neo.Tax].” 

That ease around company culture and relaxed approach to inclusion are apparent in the interactions between employees, founders, and senior leadership at Neo.Tax. And especially with matters of the heart, love is love. “One of the interesting conversations ‌I had with Ibrahim,” another co-founder of Neo.Tax, “was about a second date I was going on with a Muslim man. I wanted to know which meats to avoid when picking a restaurant. So he gave me some advice. It didn’t matter who I was dating.” 

Walking the walking is not always easy. And in Stephen Yarbrough’s case, it has meant moving across the country to find an environment where he could be himself and still work in what many consider a “conservative” profession. But with the power of visibility, inclusion, and respect in the workplace, it can mean that walking the walk, or rather putting action behind the words, makes it less of a singular, individual path and more of a collective journey.

Advice for founders? Take a top-down approach and remember being inclusive doesn’t have to be showy, as long as companies put inclusivity into action. 

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