Levi Strauss’ chief marketer Jennifer Sey has resigned from her position, claiming she was forced out after voicing her opinion that schools should remain open during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In an essay published on writer Bari Weiss’s Substack, Sey—a 20-year veteran of Levi’s who has been global brand president since 2020—said the company’s CEO, Chip Bergh, offered her a $1 million severance package in exchange for her signature on a nondisclosure agreement. However, she said declined so she could “keep my voice.”
A mother of four, Sey’s essay chronicles her rise through the ranks of the San Francisco-based apparel company, where she started as an assistant marketing manager in 1999. During her two decades at the brand, Sey “always felt encouraged to bring my full self to work—including my political advocacy.” But when she publicly questioned pandemic-related school closures on the news and social media and at rallies, she claims that Levi’s legal, human resources and communications teams pressured her to be less vocal.
“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,” Sey wrote.
When asked for comment by Forbes, a Levi’s spokesperson declined to address Sey’s claims, offering only that she resigned from the company and that brand duties will be given to Chief Commercial Officer Seth Ellison on an interim basis until a replacement is found.
Despite pushback, Sey says she urged Levi’s to speak out on school closures, noting that the company has a history of addressing political issues that affect its employees, including gay rights, voting rights and immigration.
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“I refused to stop talking,” she wrote. “I kept calling out hypocritical and unproven policies.”
Sey, who even moved her family from California to Denver so her kindergartener could attend in-person school, discussed her views in a March interview on Fox News with conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham. This, she says, led Levi’s employees to call her “anti-trans,” “anti-fat” and “racist.”
After the interview, Sey says she was asked to go on an “apology tour”—which she refused to do—and claims that CEO Bergh told her that she was on track to become the next CEO, if only she would “stop talking about the school thing.”
While many marketers use their platforms and brands to take a stance on social issues, rarely does a C-suite executive like Sey so publicly disagree with their company. Sey has historically spoken out on a number of hot-button topics: A former gymnast who competed in the 1986 Olympics in Moscow, she helped produce Athlete A—Netflix’s 2020 documentary about Larry Nassar, the former doctor for USA Gymnastics who was accused and later convicted of sexually assaulting gymnasts—and in 2008 published a memoir about her experience with mental health as a young gymnast.
But Sey and Levi haven’t always been at odds. In 2018 she helped the brand take a stand against gun violence in the U.S.—the same year Forbes named her to its inaugural CMO Next list—and last year she worked on the company’s collaboration with Naomi Osaka, telling the New York Times in May that the tennis star has “such a powerful voice, the way she’s encouraging others to speak out about equality.” Sey also produced a series of short films with Levi’s highlighting Black athletes, artists and climate activists.
“It’s easy to say ‘be authentic’ or ‘stand up for what you believe in,’ but it isn’t actually easy to do,” she told Glossy last February. “Our hope is to inspire others to undertake this journey.”