Transcript: Jennifer Sey
My interview with the American executive, filmmaker and author
My guest on the podcast today has some insights to share. She’s a mother of four and an open schools advocate, and she’s been outspoken on the issue from the very start.
Jennifer Sey is an American author, former gymnast, filmmaker, and business executive. Her new book is called Levi’s Unbuttoned — The Woke Mob Took My Job But Gave Me My Voice.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Jen, welcome to Lean Out.
JS: Thanks for having me. Nice to meet you.
TH: So nice to meet you, and really nice to have you on. I’m excited to speak with you about this book. You went into the pandemic as a progressive liberal. You were a senior executive at Levi’s — a very progressive company that was ahead of the curve on LGBTQ rights, giving employees spousal benefits before gay marriage was legal. You, a mother of two Black sons, were involved in supporting movements for racial justice, and were the executive sponsor of Levi’s resource group for Black employees. I say all of that because you broke ranks with the progressive left over school closures. I want to start with a moment in your book. You’re reading reporting from Alec MacGillis on the children that were left behind by school closures. Tell me about the emotional impact on you, reading that piece.
JS: Well, I had been speaking out since March when everything shut down. Because I’d been reading the data on children. There was plenty of data available that children were very, very unlikely to get sick — and not so likely even to spread. There was plentiful data available. I was obsessing over, pouring over it. So I’d been outspoken since the very beginning. At first, nobody said anything to me at work. It actually took quite a while. It took until September. I don’t know if no one noticed or, or what. But eventually the call came. There was quite a bit of back-and-forth, telling me to think about what I was doing and what I was saying, because when I spoke I represented the company. And then that fall, this piece by Alec MacGillis appeared in both The New Yorker and ProPublica about the harms to low-income children.
I wept when I read it. The poor child Shemar just struggled, with no real responsible adult at home to help him. No WiFi. This was a kid that had a lot of potential, that MacGillis himself had tutored. And he just struggled and struggled, and essentially got no schooling at all. And no support from the public school system — which he needed — whether that was tutoring or food, or just looking out for his well-being. To me, it was obvious that this is what was going to happen. But to see it in print was really moving. And I thought, “This is a moment that even liberals will come around to. I mean, it’s The New Yorker, for goodness sake. What liberal progressive doesn’t love The New Yorker?” So I thought it had that stamp of approval.
I took the opportunity to write a proposal, at that point, to some of my peers at Levi’s. To say we’re a company that has weighed in on critical issues in the past, that are of importance to our employees. Healthcare benefits for LGBTQ employees — we were the first Fortune 500 company to offer that. It was extended to unmarried straight employees as well. This was before anyone had even contemplated gay marriage. And we did it because it impacted our employees.
So, I thought, our employees are being affected. Every employee that has a child in public school, they can’t really work. We should weigh in. So I wrote a proposal and cited his piece. But the decision was made and came back to me that we not be weighing in on the subject. I should mention that the other factor that I thought would play a role is that, at this point, the private schools in the city that I used to live in, San Francisco, had also opened. So most of my peers had their kids in school. Which to me said that, one, they weren’t afraid to send their kids to school. And two, they believed in the importance of in-person schooling. Because of our stances around equality for all employees and for all people, I thought they would surely see.
You know, it’s not like I think if Levi’s had weighed in that everything would have changed. But companies can hold sway. And it would, at least locally, I thought, put some pressure on local officials if we had written an op-ed in one of the local papers, or made a public statement about the importance of in-person education.
TH: Which is something that Levi’s executives had done in the past, as you point out. I will get more into to the situation with Levi’s in a moment. But first, let’s set the stage here. We have, on this podcast, listeners from around the world. So tell me a little bit about the context. How long were California public school kids out of class? And also, if you can you touch on the playgrounds? Because those were closed for a long time too, I understand.
JS: Yeah, that’s right. And everything that I spoke out about and pushed back on, at least in the first year, during 2020, was pertaining to children. California schools were closed the longest of any state in the United States. For all intents and purposes, they were closed for 18 months, and did not open until the fall of 2021. There was a modest amount of hybrid in the spring — starting as late as April in the spring of 2021 — that they like to say they opened schools. But it was just a scant few schools, for maybe one day a week, for the most high risk children. So, I think it’s a lie to say that schools opened in the spring of 2021. They opened in the fall of 2021. Longest state in the nation for school closures.
In San Francisco, specifically — a very liberal, progressive city, playgrounds were actually closed for approximately 10 months. They opened briefly, I think, in September of 2020. They had closed instantly in March, and then they closed again because there was a surge. But at that point, parents pushed back. Parents went crazy. Because if you live in a city, you often don’t have a yard. So these kids were just stuck at home on screens, with nowhere to play. And when I say “don’t have a yard,” I’m not just talking about low-income folks and public subsidized housing. That was one block away from me. But even in a nice apartment like I had, we didn’t have a yard either. And so my two youngest children — who at the time, I think, were three and five — there was nowhere to play. They were literally just locked up at home.
I should mention that the playgrounds had yellow tape around them. The swings were chained together so that even if you were brave enough — as we often did — to jump the fence, the kids couldn’t really play. And citizens were encouraged to tell on other citizens. So, often we jumped the fence into an empty playground and people would call the police on us. And police would come and usher my husband, who is a stay-at-home dad, and us away from the playground.
I should say, it went a step further. Basketball hoops on public courts were either boarded over, or the hoops were taken down. Teenagers couldn’t go play a pickup game of basketball. In some instances, beaches were closed in the Bay Area so kids couldn’t surf. Or adults. Skate parks — skateboarding ramps were filled with sand. So, you know, kids were discouraged at every turn from going outside, from playing, from moving their bodies. The message clearly sent was, “You should just stay home.” Which, as we know, is not really the safest place to be. And we also know now there’s been just an incredible increase in weight gain amongst young people. I think a doubling of BMI.
It was never unsafe for kids to play outside. But I think the other strong signal it sent is that kids are dangerous. And that kids are in danger. And I think that’s sent the message to the school board, and to everyone else, that the schools needed to stay closed. Kids were just viewed as dangerous vectors of disease.
TH: It’s astonishing as you detail it now, looking back on it. But at the time it was very controversial to bring these things up.
JS: Yes. I mean, I was pretty vocal about the playgrounds and the basketball courts from the beginning. And that’s when the pushback online started. People published my address online, which is publicly available if you look. But that’s different than publishing it on Twitter. The assumption being that I should be targeted in some way for saying playgrounds should open.
TH: There was one other point I wanted to touch on briefly. As you mentioned, your executive colleagues, their children were in private schools. Which were open. You chose to have your kids in public school. That’s a deliberate choice you and your family have made. Tell me about your reasoning. Because it does go against the grain.
JS: I have two older children as well as the two younger, they’re 22 and 19. The first was born in 2000. And I should say that at the time he started school, which I think was 2005, I couldn’t really have afforded private. Which was not the driving reason. I mean, I suppose I could have scraped it together, but I wasn’t raking it in. And I was the primary breadwinner. We weren’t really a two income household. I wasn’t an executive at the time, so it would’ve been very, very difficult. But that’s not the reason. The reason is I believe in the public school system, even after all that’s happened. And I want my kids to be part of the community that they live in.
I feel like in the private schools, they would be cordoned off from the city that they live in. And that wasn’t the experience that I wanted for my kids. I didn’t want them to be in a situation that it was only kids like them — that came from more privileged backgrounds. I wanted them to experience the diversity of the city. Because I think that’s part of an education. As my kids got older, I had then two in SFUSD, which is the San Francisco public school system. I was very happy with the education. They did really well. They went all the way through, graduated high school. One is done with college now; he went to a public university, Berkeley. And the other is in college. They thrived. So I was very happy with it.
I didn’t understand this idea that somehow we were too good for public education just because I could have afforded it at a certain point in my career. I always really believed in public school system and being part of the community. And if you don’t think they are good enough, then work to improve them.
TH: Let’s talk about Levi’s. I’m curious about the turn from progressive corporate culture — which you participated in, and championed — to the woke capitalism that you talk about in your book. One of the criticisms you make is that Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh, as he was espousing woke beliefs in public, he was laying off Levi’s employees and collecting a $42 million pay cheque. Let’s talk about woke capitalism more broadly, given your insider perspective on this. What is woke capitalism — and how does it operate?
JS: My view is that it’s a marketing strategy. And that it is a pose that is not authentic, that is not actually interested in social justice. But it avails itself of social justice politics to market the business and the brand, while putting nothing at risk. No skin in the game. It really is a way, I think— at least the companies believe — to engage younger consumers. Which in fashion, which Levi’s is, is the holy grail, right? You want these younger folks who buy more, spend more, and have influence in terms of what’s cool in fashion. You want those. And the Levi’s brand had aged over the years. The average age of consumer when I started as the CMO, the Chief Marketing Officer, I think was late 40s, early 50s. That’s not a recipe for a successful brand long-term. So, this is a means of engaging younger consumers.
But there’s more at play than that. Because I think CEOs and the C-Suiters, they are very eager to distance themselves from business leaders of the past. You know, the robber barons and oil barons. Those that created the Occupy Wall Street crisis. Even to some extent, I would say, pharma CEOs who created the opioid crisis.
It’s not enough to be rich. They want to be hailed and celebrated as do-gooders and altruists. It’s just dishonest, is what I would say. Because at the end of the day, business is as it always has been — it’s about making money. And if you are not profitable and growing your revenue, you’re not really in business anymore at a certain point. And so that’s what I mean by it’s a lie. This progressive sheen is a new way to drive the business and retain the existing power structure and glean untold fortunes for shareholders and CEOs alike. And it’s the dishonesty that I call out.
I’m not suggesting in any way that the old capitalism is good. I do think there needs to be protections. I think the subprime mortgage crisis is an example of that. The opioid crisis is an example of that. But, at the end of the day, my belief — and I call it normie capitalism in the book — is you make the best product. You sell it at a fair price. Market it in a way that’s truthful and appealing. Treat your employees with fairness. Pay them fairly. Treat them equally. Give everybody an opportunity to succeed. There you go, that’s an honest business strategy. That’s not what’s happening.
I think that, also, we’re in this era of “I’m not your dad, I’m your friend.” I think they’re eager to impress their young adult children with their progressive bonafides. Because it’s almost like the money is shameful at this point. You know, when we’re all renouncing our privilege — to have that much money, 43 million in one year payout, it’s kind of grotesque. When we laid off close to a thousand employees in 2020, we said at Levi’s that we were doing it with empathy. Meanwhile, shareholders and — as you articulated — the CEO, I think, cashed out 42 million in stock. That’s what’s happening behind the scenes. I would argue the empathetic action would have been to fight to get our stores open so we could retain employment for the employees of Levi Strauss & Co. Not lay them off with a statement saying we were doing it with empathy. Because there isn’t anything empathetic about leaving folks without a job.
TH: Let’s talk about your own departure from Levi’s. You say that you were pushed out and you say that you received a number of warnings about your school closure advocacy on Twitter — and a list from HR of topics that you should avoid and/or delete tweets on. It seems, in your telling, that a turning point came when you decided to appear on Fox News. You write in the book that Levi’s employees were “apoplectic.” Tell me about that.
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