When people meet Jennifer Sey, the former global brand president at Levi Strauss & Co., they always want to know: So, what’s it like to walk away from a million-dollar severance package?
Sey was shoved out of Levi-Strauss last year after she spoke up against public-school closures in San Francisco, not the right topic for a company that reveled in its wokeness. The severance package would have silenced Sey about her struggle within the corporation, however. But a million dollars?
“I ask myself that some days,” says Sey laughing. Becoming serious, she continues, “The thing that became alarming to me, as I continued to speak out about the harm being done to children, was the censorship. This was even more alarming than school-closure policies. Censorship and vilification of dissenters created what I would call a manufactured consensus that allowed schools to stay closed.”
“Nobody wanted to go through what I was going through, so they stayed quiet, even if they agreed with me. If I’d taken the money, I would have silenced myself. That felt so at odds with the values that I was espousing that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be that hypocritical, even though the money certainly would have made my life a lot easier.”
Sey ended up writing a memoir about her ordeal, and the title of her book didn’t soft-pedal what happened to her. Levi’s Unbuttoned: The Woke Mob That Took My Job but Gave Me My Voice is the title of Sey’s book, which was published in November by All Seasons Press, a small, non-traditional publisher. We are lucky that Sey did not take the money: she was strategically placed to give us the inside story on what has been called “woke capitalism” (the term was coined by conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat).
Sey knew she was taking a controversial stand, but she never expected that it would end up costing her job. “I don’t think I realized at the beginning [that it would cause so much upheaval],” she tells IWF. “What I was saying seemed like common sense, the closing of public schools hurts children, but the conflict went on for about two years while I was at Levi’s. It wasn’t something that happened all at once. While I realized my view was not in the mainstream, I believed that common sense would prevail. And I believed that care for our kids would prevail. And I thought that I could, with data and a calm diplomatic voice, influence the discussion.
“I did not realize I would become as controversial as I did. I was outspoken for six months before I even got a call from anyone at Levi’s telling me I really needed to reconsider my actions. I got the first call in September of 2020. The pushback from my peers and my boss continued for a year and a half after that first call, and I would say the criticisms and name-calling and vilification intensified over the course of that year and a half. And I would say about halfway through that time period I realized that my job could be at risk.
“What I tell people is you have to stand up to it because I think common sense will prevail. It’s a scary challenge to stand apart from the group, but I think if you do it, you’ll find there’s more of us than of them.”
“It was horrible. It is upsetting to me still. I lost most of my friends from the ‘before time.’ I have experienced fractured family relationships. My brother and I haven’t spoken in over two years. My colleagues distanced themselves from me or outright called me names. I was called a racist, and anti-science and anti-mask. I was challenged and told, or asked, interrogated, to declare that I was on the good team. I was asked, ‘are you with us or against us?’ I was made to do an apology tour internally, though instead of apologizing, I explained my view.
“Meanwhile, the private schools were opening, and all of my peers were sending their kids back to in-person school. I was being told at the same time I couldn’t advocate for the same thing for public school children, and I found the hypocrisy so galling and so at odds with the woke stances that the company took, claiming to fight inequality, and I couldn’t fathom anything that would lead to more inequality than keeping private schools for wealthy kids open, while public schools stayed closed, which are majority low-income children.”
Sey’s children went to public schools, a rarity among San Francisco’s elite executives. Levi’s is just one of the big corporations aggressively adopting progressive positions. What about this?
“Over the last five to eight years,” Sey replies, “there’s been the trend for companies to take woke stances, which I would say are a charade. The purpose of doing so is to curry favor with younger, more ‘progressive consumers’ by stating that you align your values with them. So, it’s a cynical thing. I’ve been in the boardrooms—it really is a money-making strategy. There’s nothing true or authentic about it. At the end of the day, as it always has been, it’s about money and profits, and this is seen as an expedient way to make money off of younger progressive consumers.
“And because these companies, the ones that take the woke stances, are largely in large coastal cities, they live in sort of a bubble, the executives. They think everybody holds these views. They think only alt-right lunatics hold views that differ from the woke narrative. What is confusing to me is how lockdowns and school closures became part of the woke narrative. It seemed to me that the stances being taken during Covid were a trespass of the values that the Left stated they believed in. They said they believed in equality, and they believed in public schooling, and they believed in protecting the vulnerable. This idea that we could lock down, shutter small businesses, and close public schools while protecting big businesses, big box stores, and allowing private schools to open seems such a conflict with the party’s own stated values that I am no longer a Democrat.”
“Over the last five to eight years,” Sey replies, “there’s been the trend for companies to take woke stances, which I would say are a charade.”
Sey is a woman with a history of hard work and recognizing injustice and then blowing the whistle on injustices she has discovered. At the age of six, Sey dedicated herself to achieving distinction as a gymnast. She became a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team seven times and in 1986 was the Women’s All-Around National Champion. Her success came with significant sacrifices by her family (her mother moved from New Jersey, where the family lived, to an apartment in Allentown, Pennsylvania so Jennifer could be close to a superior gym) and emotional and physical costs to herself. “I suffered a number of pretty devastating injuries, and in every instance, I went back too soon after each one, which caused another, because that was what you did,” she recalls.
“I was in extreme physical pain,” she continues. “I was also anorexic. A lot of anorexic behaviors are demanded of the athlete. Food was taken away from us. We were bullied and fat-shamed. My physical pain and the anorexia led me to real depression and anxiety. And it got to the point where I just couldn’t do the sport anymore. I completely fell apart. I chose to walk away rather than continue to abuse myself. So, I walked away a few months before the Olympic trials in 1988.”
Then Sey enjoyed a normal life. She attended Stanford University then moved to San Francisco after graduating. She then got an entry-level job at an advertising agency in 1994 and later went to work at The Gap for three years in marketing.
In 1999 she started at Levi’s as an entry-level marketer and started climbing the corporate ladder. In 2008, after becoming a VP at Levi’s, Sey wrote Chalked-Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics. Olympic Gold Medalist Dominique Moceanu hailed the book as an expose of “a dark side to our sport that parents have long needed to be made aware of” in a blurb. (“The message was not well received by the Olympic and gymnastics community,” Sey recalls. “Until the Larry Nassar story broke. But I endured bullying and harassment for close to a decade for the things I said.”)
When the news about Larry Nassar, the doctor to the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team who had abused female athletes for 18 years, broke, it all sounded depressingly familiar to Sey. Sey had not worked with Nassar but she knew the scene. Sey served as a producer on the 2020 Netflix documentary “Athlete A,” about Nassar. Entertainment Tonight Online reported that Jennifer said, “she didn’t mean to become a ‘whistleblower,’ but has felt the need to expose the alleged culture of abuse in gymnastics.”
Sey joined Levi Strauss in 1999 and rose rapidly. At the time of her departure from Levi’s, the New York Times and other publications described Sey as possibly the next CEO of the company. A senior vice president of Levi’s told the New York Times that the company had “supported Ms. Sey’s advocacy on schools, but that she ‘went far beyond calling for schools to reopen, and frequently used her platform to criticize public health guidelines and denounce elected officials and government scientists.’” She committed such sins as appearing on the Laura Ingraham show and doing a Youtube interview with Naomi Wolf, the former Al Gore adviser who had been banished from Twitter because of her opinions on the Covid vaccine.
When the news about Larry Nassar, the doctor to the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team who had abused female athletes for 18 years, broke, it all sounded depressingly familiar to Sey, who originally rose to fame as a gymnast.
She is married to Daniel Kotzin, whom she met at a San Francisco bookstore. They had both come to support a mutual friend who had just published a book. “That night of the reading we went to dinner with our friend, the writer, and we had a lively conversation,” Sey recalls. “In fact, part of the conversation was about public schools, which was interesting, and which we violently agreed on—we both supported public schooling.” She told Daniel about a colleague who asked her where her children went to school. “I told her New Traditions, which was my local public school, and she said, ‘I wouldn’t send my dog there.’ And I was appalled. I was like, what’s so great about your dog? And my now husband, couldn’t believe me. He thought I was being sort of hyperbolic. And I said no, they’re elitist. They pretend to be for social justice but when it comes down to it, they actually don’t want to send their kids to a school with kids they view as beneath their own children. And so, he and I were discussing this. This was our first date. It’s all so ironic, isn’t it?”
Daniel was a lawyer but what he really wanted to do was have kids and stay at home with them, which he now does. They now live in Denver and have two children, a boy and a girl, who of course attend public schools, and Jennifer has two sons from a previous marriage. There is a fifteen-year gap between her two sets of children. You can read or listen to her discussion of being a working parent with IW’s Julie Gunlock here.
“What I tell people is you have to stand up to it because I think common sense will prevail. It’s a scary challenge to stand apart from the group, but I think if you do it, you’ll find there’s more of us than of them. There are more people who believe in the normal, and not in the crazy, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it in her rebuttal to the State of the Union. There are more of us that believe in common sense and believe in truth. You don’t have to do what I did. You don’t have to blow up your life and lose your job, but you have to challenge the lies. When you’re silent, we end up being governed by authoritarians who further lies and propagandistic nonsense that is harmful to our children. So, I just encourage people to screw up their courage a little bit and challenge the lies in their everyday lives, because I think it can help get us back to normal, but we can’t do it alone. There are a lot of us, and there’s just too many that are silent.”
Although an extra million might come in handy, Jennifer Sey is giving her kids and all of us something just as beneficial—a lesson in courage, and that’s something even a million dollars can’t buy.