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I rejected $1M severance so I could speak my truth: Former Levi's exec

Jennifer Sey resigned from her position, saying she was forced out after voicing her opinion that schools should remain open during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Former brand president of Levi's, Jennifer Sey.
Former brand president of Levi's, Jennifer Sey.Courtesy of Jennifer Sey.

Before Covid-19, Jennifer Sey’s path seemed pretty straightforward.

As chief marketing officer of Levi Strauss with a 20-year tenure at the company, Sey had been on the CEO track. She was even promoted to brand president in October 2020.

“The brand was performing really well. I had a good year in review, and I was recognized as a strong leader,” Sey recounted to Know Your Value.

RELATED: How I went from elite gymnast to global brand president of Levi's

Sey, 52, never would have guessed that, a year later, she would have to resign from Levi Strauss as a result of her views on Covid-19. She said she rejected a $1 million buyout so she would be able to tell her story publicly.

Caught in a politicized battle

According to Sey, what started as an effort to get kids back into in-person schooling during Covid-19 ballooned into a controversy over free speech and political polarization.

During the pandemic, Sey started becoming increasingly vocal about school closures in her city, San Francisco. As the mother of four children and sole breadwinner of the household—her husband Daniel is a stay-at-home dad—Sey was concerned that the city’s strict school closures were affecting a whole generation of children.

Jennifer Sey with her two youngest children.
Jennifer Sey with her two youngest children.Courtesy of Jennifer Sey.

“I found it troubling, because children were being harmed, and the most disadvantaged were being harmed the most,” said Sey. “We’ve read about the psychological harms, the social isolation, the learning loss—these things were all being denied. This felt so wrong to me.”

Sey has two college-age children, a first grader and a preschooler. In 2020, her second-youngest child entered kindergarten virtually.

“What was concerning to me was that his first experience at school was so horrible. You want them to like school. He didn't get any of that. He was alone on a computer looking at a screen,” Sey said.

Sey began posting on her social media pages about San Francisco’s closures, which have been among the strictest in the nation. The closures pitted a group of parents in a long, ongoing battle against the district school board, and Sey was heavily involved.

To Sey, it was simply about the kids. In the broader political conversation, however, Democrats have typically leaned toward stricter school closures during Covid-19, while Republicans have spoken in favor of keeping schools open. San Francisco is traditionally Democratic.

Sey moved her family to the more moderate city of Denver, where they have been enjoying in-person learning.

“Kids shouldn’t be a political issue,” said Sey. “But they have been made into one.”

Jennifer Sey and her husband in front of their Denver home.
Jennifer Sey and her husband in front of their Denver home.Courtesy of Jennifer Sey.

Rejecting a $1 million severance

As Sey’s following grew, she alleged that, at first, Levi Strauss quietly tried to get her to stop posting about the issue. According to Sey, a high-ranking executive told her that she had what it took to become CEO, but that the only thing standing in her way was her social media presence. Still, she kept posting and attending meetings.

Things came to a fever pitch when Sey appeared on the right-leaning Fox News show, “The Ingraham Angle” to discuss the issue.

“I probably disagree with 90 percent of what she thinks, and that's OK. We had reached out to the other, more mainstream media platforms, and no one else was willing to engage, so I stand by my decision,” said Sey.

The appearance, however, set off a firestorm of criticism on social media and internally within Levi Strauss. Sey said that employees accused her of being anti-science and anti-LGBTQ due to her affiliation with Ingraham.

According to Sey, in January, she was told that there would not be a place for her in the company. She resigned.

Ancel Martínez, director of business and financial communications at Levi Strauss & Co., said in a statment that "this is not a case of Levi's stifling dissent." Martínez added, "Our company supported Jen Sey’s personal advocacy on many issues. However, Jen went far beyond calling for school reopenings, frequently using her platform to criticize public health guidelines and denounce elected officials and government scientists. As a top executive, her words and actions effectively undermined the company’s health and safety policies, creating confusion and concern amongst employees. Jen cynically accuses the company of abandoning its values. That’s simply untrue. We chose our values by putting safety first and expected our executive officers to do the same. Instead, Jen chose to leave the company.”

The company also insisted, “Sey was not muzzled by an NDA or offered any written agreement that would have prevented her from speaking out on any public issues; she therefore never turned down any amount of money in order to retain her ability to speak freely.”

Sey alleged that she was offered a $1 million severance package, which would come with a standard non-disclosure agreement.

“I thought long and hard about it. I thought I might not be employable anywhere else because of the issue. I'm the sole breadwinner of the family,” said Sey. “Ultimately, I decided that I couldn’t agree to it, because I didn’t feel like I did anything wrong and I wanted to be able to talk about what happened. It felt hypocritical to take it.”

She continued: “I don't want to live in a world where advocating for kids is an HR violation.”

Sey said she rejected the offer, and was officially free to speak out.

A history of advocacy

Sey is not new to advocacy and public backlash.

Beginning at age 6, Sey worked as a professional gymnast, becoming the U.S. Women’s All-Around National Champion in 1986. After retiring at age 19, she began speaking out about the abuses of children within the sport.

Sey wrote a memoir in 2008 called “Chalked Up,” which detailed some of the grueling, abusive practices toward children in gymnastics, including starvation tactics and extreme belittling.

“This was long before Larry Nassar. It’s hard to believe now, but no one was talking about this.

There was this real push to protect the reputations of those in power in the sport, whether it was USA coaches, national coaches, it was so intense. The response was to call me a liar and a grifter. I was threatened with lawsuits and even violence,” she said.

Sey became a producer on the 2020 documentary “Athlete A,” which chronicled the Larry Nassar case and the system that enabled him to abuse young female gymnasts.

The experience emboldened Sey when it came to fighting school closures.

“It solidified my resolve when people finally saw the truth and accepted it. It made me feel like the truth here would be revealed also, that closed schools were a terrible and unnecessary harm to children, and that children were being asked to carry a terribly unfair burden,” she said.

The next chapter.

Now, a month after the resignation, Sey is looking ahead. She said she is lucky to have a financial cushion that will give her some breathing room before deciding her next move. She is looking to write another book.

“I didn't see my life going this way. But I am optimistic about the future. I’m excited in that I’m sort of untethered now, and I can advocate for the things I care about,” said Sey.

Sey has no regrets, and said that the experience has made her more dogged in pursuing her causes.

“The only time I've been disappointed in myself is when I haven't been true to my own values,” said Sey. “Silence and obedience in gymnastics is drilled into you, so I used to be quiet, which people laugh at now. I mean, I really found my value.”

Sey offered advice to people who are forced to choose between their careers and their causes.

“You have to decide what matters to you. What matters to you more? The fight that you’re fighting, the thing you wanna speak up about, or does it matter to you more to keep the job and stay on the path that you’re on—which is a very understandable and respectable path?” she asked. “At the end of the day, you have to decide.”