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Levi's President Quit And Turned Down $1 Million In Severance To Speak Up Against Covid Restrictions In Schools

By Gina Florio··  6 min read
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Jennifer Sey
Netflix

The coronavirus pandemic has, for better or worse, divided our country. It's rare to see people stand up against the mandates and lockdowns that have affected our friends and family, and we know that many people who have been brave enough to speak up have paid the price dearly.

Jennifer Sey is one of those people. She is the former President of Levi's global brand, and she just announced in a blog post that she has chosen to leave the company that she called home for more than 20 years. She tells the story about why she is separating from the brand, and what she sacrificed in order to keep her voice.

Jennifer Sey Was Openly Against Shutting Down Schools

Sey is a mother and executive who spent 30 years living in California, many of which were spent fighting for gay rights, voting rights, gun safety, etc. She openly supported Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 Democratic primary and favored the Black Lives Matter narrative about George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. She aligned with Levi's on all of these issues and was even asked to be "the executive sponsor of the Black Employee Resource Group by two black employees" in 2017.

But there was one thing Sey believed that Levi's didn't approve of.

"Early on in the pandemic, I publicly questioned whether schools had to be shut down," Sey wrote in her blog post. "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."

"Early on in the pandemic, I publicly questioned whether schools had to be shut down."

Sounds simple enough. Sey attended meetings with the mayor's office, organized rallies, and spoke up on social media about the importance of keeping schools open for the sake of children. She was adamant about preserving kids' education, particularly the kids who attended public school and didn't have access to alternative types of education such as homeschool, private school, etc. This is precisely the moment that the accusations came flying in.

"I was condemned for speaking out," she wrote. "I was called a racist—a strange accusation given that I have two black sons—a eugenicist, and a QAnon conspiracy theorist."

In October 2020, it was clear to Sey that the public schools weren't going reopen that fall. That's when she asked the leaders of Levi's if they would be willing to "weigh in on the topic of school closures in our city, San Francisco."

This was the response she received: “We don’t weigh in on hyper-local issues like this. There’s also a lot of potential negatives if we speak up strongly, starting with the numerous execs who have kids in private schools in the city.”

"I was called a racist, a eugenicist, and a QAnon conspiracy theorist."

Sey was determined, and she decided to keep going. Around this time she decided to uproot her family from California and move to Denver so her kindergartner could "finally experience real school." The news picked up on her fight and her story, and this is when she was asked to be a guest on Laura Ingraham's show on Fox. This appearance prompted people to call her anti-science, anti-fat, anti-trans, and of course, racist—by the very people that she had worked with for years at Levi's. Sey kept going anyway.

Levi's Tried To Silence Her

The Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion asked Sey to do an "apology tour." Apparently, colleagues were complaining that Sey was "not a friend of the Black community." She was advised to publicly apologize and say, "I am an imperfect ally."

In the fall of 2021, Sey had dinner with the CEO of Levi's, who told her that she was well on her way to take his place as chief executive. "The only thing standing in my way, he said, was me," she wrote. "All I had to do was stop talking about the school thing."

"Today I’m trading in my job at Levi’s. In return, I get to keep my voice."

She refused to stay silent on such an important topic. Over the next few months, she was continuously bombarded with attacks, whether it was anonymous trolls on Twitter or people who were threatening to boycott Levi's until she was fired.

"Every day, a dossier of my tweets and all of my online interactions were sent to the CEO by the head of corporate communications," she wrote. "At one meeting of the executive leadership team, the CEO made an off-hand remark that I was 'acting like Donald Trump.' I felt embarrassed, and turned my camera off to collect myself."

It finally all came to a head when Levi's CEO told her it was "untenable" for her to stay at the company. He offered her a $1 million severance package, but the catch was that she'd have to sign a nondisclosure agreement about what transpired and why she was being kicked out of the company.

"The money would be very nice," Sey said. "But I just can’t do it. Sorry, Levi’s."

Sey reflects back on her time with Levi's. She never anticipated that it would end up like this. "I never set out to be a contrarian. I don’t like to fight," she said. "I love Levi’s and its place in the American heritage as a purveyor of sturdy pants for hardworking, daring people who moved West and dreamed of gold buried in the dirt."

She says the red tag on the back pocket of Levi's jeans "used to be shorthand for what was good and right about this country." When she was a gymnast, she would hand out pairs of Levi's to gymnasts in Russia (where she competed) as a symbol of American freedom.

"The corporation is trapped trying to please the mob—and silencing any dissent within the organization."

"But the corporation doesn’t believe in that now," she concluded. "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."

Sey considers the many young employees she mentored who went on to be executives in the company. Not a single one of them stood with her or even supported her right to speak her mind, even if they didn't agree with her. Perhaps they will realize one day how wrong they were; perhaps they won't. Regardless, she can hold her head high knowing that she was brave enough to stand by her convictions and refuse to bow down to the mob, even when her career and $1 million were on the line.

"I’ll always wear my old 501s. But today I’m trading in my job at Levi’s," she concluded. "In return, I get to keep my voice."

It's rare to see people as brave as Sey, people who are willing to sacrifice so much in order to stand up for what's right. We all know there are many other executives, celebrities, and politicians who agree with her sentiments and know deep down that we're unfairly robbing children of a normal youth, but they're too cowardly to speak up. Sey is a shining example we can all learn from.

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