Jennifer Sey quit a top job at Levi’s to speak freely about COVID rules : NPR


Former Levi’s govt Jennifer Sey speaks at a convention in 2018.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Photos for The Enterprise of Vogue


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Lintao Zhang/Getty Photos for The Enterprise of Vogue


Former Levi’s govt Jennifer Sey speaks at a convention in 2018.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Photos for The Enterprise of Vogue

Within the spring of 2020, in the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Jennifer Sey took a hard-line, controversial place: Faculties ought to keep open.

On the time, Sey was chief advertising and marketing officer at Levi Strauss & Co., with 21 years on the firm. Later within the yr, Sey received promoted to Levi’s model president — on a path to doubtlessly develop into the subsequent CEO. As an alternative, she has now resigned.

“In the end,” Sey informed NPR, “nearly a month in the past, the CEO mentioned to me, ‘There’s simply not a path for you right here.’ You recognize, ‘It is all an excessive amount of.’ “

Sey’s resignation made a giant splash, as she mentioned she walked away from a $1 million exit package deal, which might sometimes embrace a nondisclosure settlement. Levi’s says no such provide was formally made. Both method, Sey’s exit has prompted massive questions on firms and speech.

The place is the road between private {and professional} opinions? And is that line completely different for high-level executives?

Private model vs. firm model

Sey had constructed her private model round outspokenness: She’s a former elite gymnast who has written a guide and produced a documentary about abuses within the sport.

Through the pandemic, Sey took to Twitter, op-eds and native TV, talking out towards shutdowns of colleges and playgrounds. She wrote in regards to the affect of distant studying on college students and ultimately opposed masks mandates for youngsters altogether.

“I used to be at all times very cautious. Levi’s was not in my public profile,” Sey says. “I used to be talking as a mother of 4, a public faculty mother of 4.” Generally, she spoke as a resident of San Francisco, the place Levi’s relies. Sey acknowledges her skilled process was representing the Levi’s model, although she says she’s a mother and a baby advocate earlier than being a enterprise govt.

However is it attainable for high executives to wall off a private marketing campaign from their firm’s picture?

“It is such a high-powered place, most individuals is not going to separate it out,” says Americus Reed, who research manufacturers and social identification on the College of Pennsylvania. “You’ll be able to’t actually be a C-suite particular person lately and have a totally separate private model.”

Controversial interviews

Final spring, decided to ship her youngsters to in-person faculty, Sey moved from San Francisco to Denver. And she or he filmed extra interviews: with creator and anti-vaccine campaigner Naomi Wolf and with Fox Information host Laura Ingraham, who has forged doubt on COVID-19 vaccines and measures. Sey did not focus on vaccines and says she’s absolutely vaccinated, however her alternative of platform escalated controversy.

Levi’s workers started to complain to human sources and company leaders, Sey says, whereas posts on social media started calling for Levi’s to fireplace her and for customers to boycott the model. Among the outcry Sey confronted was over her husband’s anti-vaccination tweets, with which Sey says she disagrees.

On the identical time, Sey describes receiving many messages of assist from Levi’s employees. And so she by no means stopped her public commentary on COVID-19 restrictions for youngsters.

She additionally stayed concerned in a marketing campaign to recall members of the San Francisco Board of Training, largely over prolonged faculty closures. The push ended this month with a landslide metropolis vote to oust three faculty board members.

Levi’s personal political positions

A key a part of the story is Levi’s personal historical past of political speech. The denim firm is a storied American model that has advocated for homosexual rights, immigrants, sure gun management measures and, most not too long ago, voting rights.

“You have to be constant,” says Charles Elson, a company governance and ethics knowledgeable on the College of Delaware. “On the one hand, they took robust positions on sure social points, with which many within the firm would possibly disagree. But they punished her for successfully doing the identical factor.”

Levi’s spokesman Ancel Martinez, in a press release to NPR, argues Sey’s case was not considered one of “stifling dissent,” noting that the corporate had supported Sey’s private advocacy earlier than.

“Jen went far past calling for college re-openings, often utilizing her platform to criticize public well being tips and denounce elected officers and authorities scientists,” Martinez says. “As a high govt, her phrases and actions successfully undermined the corporate’s well being and security insurance policies, creating confusion and concern amongst workers.”

Bitter finish

When a few of San Francisco’s personal colleges started reopening in late 2020, Sey says she made a pitch for Levi’s to take a stand alongside her: to assist San Francisco public colleges reopen.

Firm leaders turned her down, she says, although it wasn’t acrimonious. She says they argued that Levi’s does not weigh in on native points and that advocating for reopening public colleges could be unseemly since kids of many executives attended personal colleges.

Levi’s hasn’t commented on this or different specifics of its discussions with Sey.

A couple of yr later, in late 2021, Sey obtained particular directions from human sources about subjects she ought to depart alone, such because the California governor recall vote, vaccine mandates and the motives of pharma firms. She says her public statements within the media and on-line have been repeatedly tracked and assessed.

For some time, Sey felt her bosses had her again — till they did not.

“There was a way that I might misplaced the power to guide throughout the group as a result of so many workers have been so upset by the issues I had mentioned,” Sey says.

Elson and Reed each say this will get to the center of the massive query: What’s the function of right now’s company chief? Elson argues it is to make high quality items at respectable costs — not wade into politics. However firms are more and more taking stands on social and political points, inevitably colliding with the views of some workers.

Reed notes that Sey made the one alternative accessible to a employee on such a collision course: She left. As Sey sees it, she gained the final word freedom: to talk freely.

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