Jennifer Sey was a top contender to be the next CEO of Levi Strauss & Company until she voiced concerns online about pandemic school closures and mask mandates for children. She had been at the company for more than 20 years, but her dedication to the company wasn’t enough.
Levi’s wanted Jennifer to get in line with the company’s political agenda — or get out of the way.
The company had loudly weighed in on political issues in the past, such as gun control. It had no problem with Jennifer posting on social media in support of Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primaries and about her sadness over the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. It hailed Jennifer as a hero when — sharing her personal experience as a former champion gymnast — she wrote a memoir on the dark side of the sport.
It was only after Jennifer started voicing concerns as a mother over school closures and masking that Levi’s executives and board members began to pressure her to “tone it down.”
Jennifer has four children, two in college and two in primary school. The issue of school closures during the pandemic directly affected her home and the lives of her children.
In an essay explaining her resignation, Jennifer wrote:
“Early on in the pandemic, I publicly questioned whether schools had to be shut down. This didn’t seem at all controversial to me. I felt—and still do—that the draconian policies would cause the most harm to those least at risk, and the burden would fall heaviest on disadvantaged kids in public schools, who need the safety and routine of school the most.
“I wrote op-eds, appeared on local news shows, attended meetings with the mayor’s office, organized rallies and pleaded on social media to get the schools open. I was condemned for speaking out. This time, I was called a racist—a strange accusation given that I have two black sons—a eugenicist, and a QAnon conspiracy theorist.”
She posted on social media as a mother and a taxpaying citizen, not a corporate executive. She took any mention of Levi’s out of her public profiles as an extra precaution.
Eventually, Jennifer and her family moved from San Francisco to Denver so her kids could go to school in person. The move was a notable example of families making tough choices during the lockdowns. She was interviewed on Laura Ingraham’s show to explain the decision to move.
The company did not take it well. As Jennifer put it:
“The comments from Levi’s employees picked up—about me being anti-science; about me being anti-fat (I’d retweeted a study showing a correlation between obesity and poor health outcomes); about me being anti-trans (I’d tweeted that we shouldn’t ditch Mother’s Day for Birthing People’s Day because it left out adoptive and step moms); and about me being racist, because San Francisco’s public school system was filled with black and brown kids, and, apparently, I didn’t care if they died.
“… The Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the company asked that I do an ‘apology tour.’”
By the time October 2021 rolled around, Chip Bergh, the CEO of Levi’s, told Jennifer the stock price had doubled under her leadership, and revenue returned to pre-pandemic levels. There was only one issue keeping her from running the company: her social media. “All I had to do was stop talking about the school thing,” Jennifer said.
The following January, Chip told Jennifer it was “untenable” for her to stay at the company. She was offered a $1 million severance package that required a nondisclosure agreement. Unwilling to put a price tag on free speech, she turned it down:
“The money would be very nice. But I just can’t do it. Sorry, Levi’s.”
Jennifer fell in love with Levi’s because of “its place in the American heritage.” She felt the jeans represented freedom. “But the corporation doesn’t believe in that now,” she wrote.
“It’s trapped trying to please the mob—and silencing any dissent within the organization. In this, it is like so many other American companies: held hostage by intolerant ideologues who do not believe in genuine inclusion or diversity.”