Home Business How one exec’s decision to show off her tattoos brought her closer to her billionaire founder—and made her stronger than ever at work 

How one exec’s decision to show off her tattoos brought her closer to her billionaire founder—and made her stronger than ever at work 

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How one exec’s decision to show off her tattoos brought her closer to her billionaire founder—and made her stronger than ever at work 

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KimArie Yowell had worked in the C-suite at Detroit-based fintech Rocket Companies for four years, but none of her colleagues had any idea about the colorful tattoos on her arm—or her shoulders and back.  

Then, at a gala several months ago to celebrate the team’s annual accomplishments at the $25 billion company, Yowell pulled out all the stops with her gown. It was black, sleeveless and low-cut in the back—and gave everyone at her company’s evening event a front-row seat to her 10 tattoos. Yowell, the company’s chief diversity officer, said it was a smash hit. “Team members were coming up to me and saying, ‘We didn’t know you were that tatted up.’”

She didn’t know then how bringing this much more of her full self to work would ground her relationship with her CEO (who has a few tattoos himself), and with her company’s billionaire founder, the philanthropist Dan Gilbert. 

There is no policy against visible tattoos at Rocket but Yowell had absorbed over the years, while getting her MBA at University of Phoenix and her doctor of education at University of Pennsylvania, that she needed a dress a certain way to be successful at work. When, six months into the job at Rocket, an executive commented on her penchant for blue and black suits and said they seemed at odds with the vibrancy and energy of her personality, she replied that she felt she had to dress that way. 

“We had a very real conversation,” she remembered. The exec told her to wear her colors, bring the flair and to not fear showing who she is. Yowell leaned in and decided not to concern herself with what others thought about her bright clothing or tattoos or “any of those things that I’ve been conditioned to do in the past at school or different jobs,” she said. 

“Those things bring me joy.”

There were no repercussions for Yowell’s aesthetic the night she showed more of her true self. In fact, CEO Varun Krishna, who took the top job seven months ago at Rocket, said in a statement to Fortune that he appreciates how the company’s culture embraces people’s individuality—especially given that Krishna has a few tattoos himself. 

“When you work at a company that celebrates you for who you are, it frees you to focus on making an impact and bringing true value to everything you do,” said Krishna. 

A common phrase you’ll hear many companies say these days is, “Bring your authentic self to work.” But when it comes to tattoos, certain piercings, or non-traditional hair colors, employees feel like they must conform or they won’t fit in, get promoted into higher levels, or be taken seriously, said Yowell. Headshots of CEOs and board members and video images of executives at meetings often show immaculate white blouses, button-down shirts, and smiles on smooth, unblemished faces. These images depict what C-level success looks like at a company, regardless of mission statements proclaiming that people can bring their whole selves to work. 

As for tattoos, they’ve become increasingly popular, particularly with women and people of color. A 2023 Pew Research Center survey found 32% of American adults have a tattoo and 22% have more than one. Some 38% of women have at least one tattoo while 27% of men have one; 39% of Black Americans have tattoos, while 35% of Hispanic adults and 14% of Asian Americans have tats. About 32% of White Americans have a tattoo.

A 2022 University of Houston study explored whether tattoos had an impact in the workplace and found mixed results. Employees with tattoos in traditionally white-collar roles that involved artistic abilities were viewed as more creative if they had tattoos. The Pew study revealed 69% of adults with tattoos said a reason they got their ink was to remember or honor someone or something, while 47% said it was to make a statement about their beliefs.

As for Yowell, her tattoos were a hit with colleagues that night and she recently mentioned to Krishna that she plans on getting a full sleeve on her left arm. It even came up once in a meeting with Rocket’s founder and chairman, Dan Gilbert, a mega-donor to the urban recovery of Detroit, multiple medical charities, and famous to sports fans for his tempestuous relationship with LeBron James as owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. When Yowell shared the meaning of the flamingo-and-orchid tattoo with Gilbert after he noticed it, she also explained that it’s accompanied by an Alice Walker quote, “Is solace anywhere more comforting than that in the arms of a sister.” The image honors her sister who passed away last fall. Her favorite bird was a flamingo.

Yowell has nearly 10 other tattoos—one honors her son, a few others honor and serve as a reminder of the her grandparents’ strength, and another says, “Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood,” which is her favorite Nina Simone song and her daily prayer for understanding and grace from others. She shared the meanings behind them all with Gilbert that day. 

“He learned a ton of stuff about me that he didn’t know, and I learned a ton of stuff about him,” she said. “It literally started because he noticed the tattoo on my forearm.”

Policies that allow employees to be themselves without consequence will ultimately bring about a competitive edge as companies recruit talent, said Yowell. 

“One of the reasons that I came here 11 years ago was because of the culture—feeling like I could belong and be me here,” she said. “We understand that when people aren’t worried about how they’re being perceived in terms of who they are, they’re actually able to be more effective and impactful in their roles in the organization.”

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