More than five months after a much-publicized departure from Levi Strauss & Co. as brand president, Jennifer Sey is ready to increase the volume of her views — the need for free speech and independent thinking in corporations and society at large, as well as the risks of censorship, and ‘woke’ or social justice capitalism in corporate America.
After nearly 23 years with Levi’s and attracting national media attention for speaking out about harm being done to children due to pandemic-induced school closures, Sey exited the company earlier this year. She did so without a non-compete or nondisclosure agreement, as is sometimes routine with longtime corporate executives who rise up through the ranks of one company.
The situation “became a battle of will,” in that between March 2020 and her departure in mid-February, she was repeatedly asked by management to be less vocal about mandatory school closures, claimed Sey, who has four children and relocated to Colorado during the pandemic so that her two youngsters could return to classroom learning. “We hit a crossroads. It was determined that my outspokenness meant that I could not hold the [chief executive officer] position at Levi’s, which I was in the running for. Because I couldn’t hold that position, I couldn’t stay in my current seat either. That is a primary feeder role for the CEO,” Sey claimed.
She pointed to the October 2021 request for a background check for herself and her husband as standard operating procedure for potential CEO candidates to vet for “any financial entanglements that could be compromising” or a criminal record. “None of those things are true, but it also included a social media scan. I granted permission on the background check, but I did say at the time that I thought that would put me out of the running. And that it would be a judgment call that Levi’s would make and say, ‘You can’t occupy the CEO role. There is too much controversy around the things that you’ve been saying.’”
In addition to social media posts, Sey had written a few op-eds and appeared on local news programs airing her views. “Even if I had deleted all of my social media, screen grabs live forever. It would have been considered too much noise for the company to withstand,” she contended.
There has been debate over if Sey was fired or if she quit. “It was kind of both. I was told there wasn’t a place for me any more. Rather than sign a NDA, I left on my own terms,” Sey said.
Upon her exit, Levi’s announced her interim successor and declined further comment about Sey’s allegations, citing company policy regarding personnel issues.
Those turbulent final two years of her tenure at Levi’s will be part of Sey’s memoir, which is due out in October from All Seasons Press. Her Substack “Sey Everything” newsletter debuts Monday and a documentary about the impact of school closures on children is in the works. All Seasons Press typically works with conservative voices, but Sey said they are looking to expand with independent thinkers who are willing to challenge the mainstream message. “Unfortunately today, if you are a little heterodox in thinking, you’re billed as alt-right, which I am definitely not. I would say I am neither party. I am independent. It’s called unidentified in Colorado.”
As a former elite gymnast, Sey wrote a 2008 book, “Chalked Up,” about abuse in gymnastics and made the 2020 film “Athlete A” that exposed the abuses in the sport — the story of since-convicted sex offender and former physician for the U.S. women’s national gymnastics team Larry Nasser was at the center of that. She claimed she was initially “vilified” for being the first to speak out publicly against a former coach, who had raped her friend, but that doing so prompted other victims to come forward and the coach was eventually banned from the sport. “If I hadn’t done that, how much longer would he have gone sexually assaulting young gymnasts? Somebody has to go first. It’s a lonely endeavor. But ultimately others will join you.”
“Not particularly interested” in pursuing politics, Sey said she has been approached about running for office for both political parties and as an independent. As “a lifelong Democrat,” who recently switched to unaffiliated, she said she has been asked by Democratic supporters in her home state of Colorado to run “for roles that are much more senior than she would consider herself capable of,” including senator. “I do not feel qualified, equipped, nor interested,” Sey said. “Regular people have said, ‘You should run. You’re what the Republican Party needs.’ A lot of people have asked me for endorsements, which I don’t want to offer at this time. I want to stay out of the political fray for now.
”I have this unique opportunity right now to do exactly what I want to do and to say what I want to say. I didn’t think I would have that if I were to run for any sort of office,” she said.
Five to 10 recruiters have approached her about fashion, retail and non-fashion roles. Sey said she first asks if they know her story and has been told by all of them that that is why she is being approached. “That’s a demonstration that there are some companies that want leaders that do have the courage of their convictions and they believe it is possible to create a culture that welcomes all kinds of diversity including viewpoint diversity. If I do ever lead an organization again, that would be part of my goal, to create an employee culture where we can disagree with each other and you can bring your whole self to work.”
One of her many concerns is that “we are selling values and not products, and are not striving for product excellence — all sold at a fair price, that are made fairly and pay workers fairly. I’m still wrestling with this. This approach I supported for a very long time. In 1992, Levi’s was the first Fortune 500 company to offer same-sex partners benefits. That is an amazing thing. But I think it’s misleading to sell your values as the reason to buy your product. It’s rife with inconsistencies and it leads to this unwelcoming employee culture. The fact is not all the employees agree. Do they not get to work there?” Sey said. “Let’s say I was a Republican, which I’m still not. Does that mean I shouldn’t be allowed to hold a job?”
Sey said it’s increasingly important to take stances on behalf of your employees, as in same-sex couples’ benefits, and less important to take public stances on the political issue of the day. “You create a culture that isn’t welcoming to all.”
The concept of companies forbidding employees to take political stances at work or through internal channels, as Coinbase did in 2020, led to employee pushback, Sey said. “It’s an evolving issue. I didn’t talk about it at work. I talked about it on my off time. I wasn’t trying to bring people around to my way of seeing things. This was for me as a mom, something that was really important. I don’t think we can ask people just because they work for a company not to be people or citizens.”
That said, Sey “wholeheartedly believes” that companies that strive for excellence delivering a great product at a great price, and make it less about social justice stances “gets you focused on the reason people buy your product and you will create a more welcoming employee culture. We can all agree and align along these business principles but we don’t all align around politics always.”
In these “difficult times, we can all make friends with each other, listen to people that we don’t agree with and get back to working together against a joint goal,” Sey said. “We can set our politics aside. If we want to talk about them in the off-hours, we can work toward building bridges to understanding. If we listen to people who don’t agree with us, we might not change our minds but we might learn to think a little differently and learn something. It’s important to do that. I have lots of friends who I don’t agree with about a lot of things, but they’re still a close friend.”
Her upcoming book will lay out “the story behind the headlines and the sound bites about what happened during my last two years at Levi’s, a company I worked for for close to 23 years,” she said. “It’s also a broader exploration of woke capitalism. They [Levi’s] are just one of many companies and are part of a much larger trend. It’s bled over from college campuses into corporate America.”
From her standpoint, such practices are misleading to consumers in terms of a company’s intentions, which are at the end of the day about profitability. It can also create an employee culture that isn’t viewpoint inclusive, and leads to “canceled” employees. “On a practical level, this type of silencing is dangerous. Companies without debate and dissent will make poor business choices,” Sey contended.