Former Levi’s Brand President Jennifer Sey Talks Free Speech and Corporate Culture

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Former Levi’s Brand president Jennifer Sey’s departure from the company Sunday — after nearly two years of publicly airing her personal views about mandatory school closures — sparked international new coverage Monday.

In an interview Monday afternoon, Sey said, “For me, this is not so much about Levi’s, but the stifling of speech and dissent. I think so many people have felt stifled and that they couldn’t say what they believed for fear of this mob coming for you. At this point, if your views in any way depart from the orthodoxy, it’s seen as an HR violation. I think people in the world and definitely in corporate culture feel they can’t really speak out about what they believe in. That’s meaningful to people to see someone do that. They feel, ‘Maybe I can say it.’”

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After Sey appeared on a few local and national programs, including with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, the situation had escalated by spring 2021, she said. She resigned from the San Francisco-based Levi’s on Sunday. “It was clear there wasn’t going to be a place for me going forward, but I chose to leave on my own terms,” Sey contended.

In a statement, Levi Strauss & Co. said that Seth Ellison, executive vice president and chief commercial officer, will serve as interim Levi’s brand president, during the search for a successor to Sey. A company spokesperson declined any further comment about Sey’s allegations, citing company policy regarding personnel issues.

As part of her exit, Sey said she was offered a “pretty standard” severance package for someone at her level. “Any severance or separation package comes with an NDA as to the terms of the separation. I was not going to sign that because I care about these issues of free speech and kids. I want to be able to talk about them.”

Sey first went public with the specifics of her kerfuffle with Levi’s in Bari Weiss’ “Common Sense” Substack Monday morning. As of now, she said she has no plans to take any legal action, preferring “to move forward to the next opportunity” and continuing child advocacy by producing more documentaries. A former elite gymnast with Team USA and a mother of four children, Sey wrote a book, “Chalked Up,” in 2008 about abuse in the Olympic movement and made the film ‘Athlete A” in 2020 that exposed the abuses in the sport of gymnastics with the convicted sex offender and former coach Larry Nasser story at the center of that. “For me, this was an extension of my advocacy for children,” she said.

Looking at her situation more broadly, Sey described corporations’ efforts to create an inclusive culture as correct and valiant. “But ultimately a culture is being created that is not inclusive and is not accepting of many opinions and voices. There needs to be some consideration of that because there are people of widely varying views. Believing that kids belong in school does not impede on my job performance,” she said. “That was a bigger issue than me and my job at Levi’s – I couldn’t not talk about it. This was so important to me.”

It can’t be considered “a violation of company policy or HR policy, if your view veers from the orthodoxy,” she said, adding this is “absolutely 100 percent a free speech issue.”

Sey noted she has always been a registered Democrat and “would have considered herself the left of left of center as a Democrat. I supported Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primaries. I feel very much that I did not leave the Democratic party but they left me. I don’t consider kids and free speech to be right-wing issues,” she said. “The Democrats in my mind should be the party of public schools and public education. I think they abandoned that post.”

Jennifer Sey - Credit: Courtesy of Crescent Bahuman Ltd
Jennifer Sey - Credit: Courtesy of Crescent Bahuman Ltd

Courtesy of Crescent Bahuman Ltd

She joined Levi’s in 1999 as an assistant marketing manager for the now-defunct value-priced fashion brand L2. Over time Sey rose through the ranks working in such capacities as a manager at Levi’s for the U.S. market, marketing director, senior director strategist, vice president at marketing Dockers, and e-commerce director before becoming chief marketing officer in 2013. In October 2020, she was named Levi’s global brand president – a first for a woman.

Sey first spoke out in opposition to California school closings at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 mostly on Facebook with friends. Initially, she didn’t consider that view to be controversial but quickly learned otherwise yet continued to share her views. When private schools reopened in the fall of 2020 but public ones stayed shuttered, she became alarmed, she said. In the spring of 2021 after teachers had been prioritized for vaccinations but public schools remained closed, she said she was flabbergasted, partially since disadvantaged children were being forced into virtual or “non learning” due to a lack of reliable WiFi or support at home, Sey said.

At one point a weekly email of Sey’s tweets were allegedly sent to Levi Strauss & Co. president and chief executive officer Chip Bergh. “They weren’t doing that with anyone else,” alleged Sey.

The former brand president said she was called a racist, anti-trans and anti-fat on Twitter and in the company. During town hall-style virtual meetings at the height of the pandemic, “employees were allowed to post questions anonymously. For several months in a row, I wouldn’t call them questions, they were statements about my anti-science and racist views,” she claimed.

To allow for her kindergarten-age child to attend in-person school, she and her family relocated to Denver in February 2021. That summer the social media backlash and trolls kicked in. Her public opposition to San Francisco’s closings of playgrounds provoked a lot of ire, Sey said. “It just seemed cruel to me to keep the playgrounds closed for what amounted to the better part of a year” in a city where many residents have no outdoor space.

Levi’s executives first started having conversations with Sey in the summer of 2020. “Their feeling was very much that they couldn’t tell me not to say anything but that I should think more carefully about what I was saying as a leader at the company. I asked, ‘Are you telling me not to?’ And they said, ‘Of course not – we can’t do that.’ I explained why it was so important to me. I’d been advocating for children for many years.”

For Sey, the questions are: “‘Do we value this notion of open dissent and free speech, and can we work together if we have opposing views?’ Should someone not be able to work if their views do not align with the current ideology.’ That seems not right to me.”

There needs to be a greater understanding of someone’s intention, even if you don’t agree with them. Citing how the arc of her life has involved advocating for children, Sey said, “You may disagree with this stance, but I would consider that I still have a right to have this view.”

Bergh issued a statement earlier Monday about the global brand leadership changes. Praising Ellison, chief product officer Karyn Hillman and the global leadership team, Bergh shared with employees, “with such deep tenure and relationships across the company and the industry who are well positioned to ensure that we continue to execute against our winning brand strategy.”

He continued, “The Levi’s brand is the strongest it has been in decades, and that is a testament to the strength of our leaders and teams throughout the brand organization and across LS&Co. I have total confidence in our talented teams as we mange this transition.”

Editor’s Note: This article was updated Feb. 14 at 10 PM.

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