Jennifer Sey was Levi’s brand president and on track to be the jeans company’s CEO. But when she complained online about extended school closures and their effect on children, she was attacked and falsely labeled a “COVID denier” who wanted to get former U.S. President Donald Trump re-elected. Levi’s management gave her a choice: Shut up or leave. As she explains in her new memoir, “Levi’s Unbuttoned,” Sey felt she had to quit her dream job on principle. In this exclusive excerpt, Sey explains how many of today’s CEOs — lacking any backbone, yet desperate to be seen as “good” — cave to performative woke mobs.
by Jennifer Sey
THE PERSONAL STORY
When I traveled to Moscow in 1986, I brought 10 pairs of Levi’s 501s in my bag. I was a 17-year-old gymnast, the reigning national champion, and I was going to the Soviet Union to compete in the Goodwill Games, a rogue Olympics-level competition orchestrated by CNN founder Ted Turner while the Soviet Union and the United States were boycotting each other.
The jeans were for bartering lycra: the Russians’ leotards represented tautness, prestige, discipline. But they clamored for my denim and all that it represented: American ruggedness, freedom, individualism.
I loved wearing Levi’s; I’d worn them as long as I could remember. But if you had told me back then that I’d one day become the president of the brand, I would’ve never believed you. If you told me that after achieving all that, after spending almost my entire career at one company, that I would resign from it, I’d think you were really crazy.
Today, I’m doing just that. Why? Because, after all these years, the company I love has lost sight of the values that made people everywhere — including those gymnasts in the former Soviet Union — want to wear Levi’s.
My tenure at Levi’s began as an assistant marketing manager in 1999, a few months after my thirtieth birthday. As the years passed, I saw the company through every trend. I was the marketing director for the U.S. by the time skinny jeans had become the rage. I was the chief marketing officer when high-waists came into vogue. I eventually became the global brand president in 2020—the first woman to hold this post. (And somehow low-rise is back.)
Over my two decades at Levi’s, I got married. I had two kids. I got divorced. I had two more kids. I got married again. The company has been the most consistent thing in my life. And, until recently, I have always felt encouraged to bring my full self to work—including my political advocacy.
That advocacy has always focused on kids.
In 2008, when I was a vice president of marketing, I published a memoir about my time as an elite gymnast that focused on the dark side of the sport, specifically the degradation of children. The gymnastics community threatened me with legal action and violence. Former competitors, teammates, and coaches dismissed my story as that of a bitter loser just trying to make a buck. They called me a grifter and a liar. But Levi’s stood by me. More than that: they embraced me as a hero.
Things changed when COVID hit. Early on in the pandemic, I publicly questioned whether schools had to be shut down. 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.
I wrote op-eds, appeared on local news shows, attended meetings with the mayor’s office, organized rallies and pleaded on social media to get the schools open. I was condemned for speaking out. This time, I was called a racist — a strange accusation given that I have two black sons—a eugenicist, and a QAnon conspiracy theorist.
In the summer of 2020, I finally got the call. “You know when you speak, you speak on behalf of the company,” our head of corporate communications told me, urging me to pipe down. I responded: “My title is not in my Twitter bio. I’m speaking as a public school mom of four kids.”
But the calls kept coming. From legal. From HR. From a board member. And finally, from my boss, the CEO of the company. I explained why I felt so strongly about the issue, citing data on the safety of schools and the harms caused by virtual learning. While they didn’t try to muzzle me outright, I was told repeatedly to “think about what I was saying.”
Meantime, colleagues posted nonstop about the need to oust Trump in the November election. I also shared my support for Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primary and my great sadness about the racially instigated murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. No one at the company objected to any of that.
Then, in October 2020, when it was clear public schools were not going to open that fall, I proposed to the company leadership that we weigh in on the topic of school closures in our city, San Francisco. We often take a stand on political issues that impact our employees; we’ve spoken out on gay rights, voting rights, gun safety, and more.
The response this time was different. “We don’t weigh in on hyper-local issues like this,” I was told. “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 refused to stop talking. I kept calling out hypocritical and unproven policies, I met with the mayor’s office, and eventually uprooted my entire life in California — I’d lived there for over 30 years — and moved my family to Denver so that my kindergartner could finally experience real school. We were able to secure a spot for him in a dual-language immersion Spanish-English public school like the one he was supposed to be attending in San Francisco.
National media picked up on our story, and I was asked to go on Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News. That appearance was the last straw. The comments from Levi’s employees picked up — about me being anti-science; about me being anti-fat (I’d retweeted a study showing a correlation between obesity and poor health outcomes); about me being anti-trans (I’d tweeted that we shouldn’t ditch Mother’s Day for Birthing People’s Day because it left out adoptive and step moms); and about me being racist, because San Francisco’s public school system was filled with black and brown kids, and, apparently, I didn’t care if they died. They also castigated me for my husband’s COVID views — as if I, as his wife, were responsible for the things he said on social media.
All this drama took place at our regular town halls — a companywide meeting I had looked forward to but now dreaded.
Meantime, the Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the company asked that I do an “apology tour.” I was told that the main complaint against me was that “I was not a friend of the Black community at Levi’s.” I was told to say that “I am an imperfect ally.” (I refused.)
The fact that I had been asked, back in 2017, to be the executive sponsor of the Black Employee Resource Group by two black employees did not matter. The fact that I’ve fought for kids for years didn’t matter. That I was just citing facts didn’t matter. The head of HR told me personally that even though I was right about the schools, that it was classist and racist that public schools stayed shut while private schools were open, and that I was probably right about everything else, I still shouldn’t say so. I kept thinking: Why shouldn’t I?
In the fall of 2021, during a dinner with the CEO, I was told that I was on track to become the next CEO of Levi’s — the stock price had doubled under my leadership, and revenue had returned to pre-pandemic levels. The only thing standing in my way, he said, was me. All I had to do was stop talking about the school thing.
But the attacks would not stop. Anonymous trolls on Twitter, some with nearly half a million followers, said people should boycott Levi’s until I’d been fired. So did some of my old gymnastics fans. They called the company ethics hotline and sent emails.
Every day, a dossier of my tweets and all of my online interactions were sent to the CEO by the head of corporate communications. 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.
In the last month, the CEO told me that it was “untenable” for me to stay. I was offered a $1 million severance package, but I knew I’d have to sign a nondisclosure agreement about why I’d been pushed out.
The money would be very nice. But I just can’t do it. Sorry, Levi’s.
I never set out to be a contrarian. I don’t like to fight. 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. The red tag on the back pocket of the jeans I handed over to the Russian girls used to be shorthand for what was good and right about this country, and when I think about my trip to Moscow, so many decades ago, I still get a little choked up.
But the corporation doesn’t believe in that now. 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.
In my more than two decades at the company, I took my role as manager most seriously. I helped mentor and guide promising young employees who went on to become executives. In the end, no one stood with me. Not one person publicly said they agreed with me, or even that they didn’t agree with me, but supported my right to say what I believe anyway.
I like to think that many of my now-former colleagues know that this is wrong. I like to think that they stayed silent because they feared losing their standing at work or incurring the wrath of the mob. I hope, in time, they’ll acknowledge as much.
I’ll always wear my old 501s. But today I’m trading in my job at Levi’s. In return, I get to keep my voice.
“Woke capitalism” is corporate America’s attempt to profit off Millennial and Gen Z activism, often passive keyboard activism.
It exploits social-justice politics and transforms it into social-justice consumerism — and ultimately, investor profit. Companies purporting to care about “progressive values” are really doing nothing more than striking a superficial pose meant to signal virtue while distracting from any company’s true motive: financial gain for shareholders.
All of that is true. But there is more to it, in my opinion.
First, you’ve got CEOs and executives who want to distance themselves from the greedy image of past business leaders. They want you to know that they are not like the ruthless banking moguls and oil tycoons from years gone by. They aren’t destroying the planet, and they aren’t taking advantage of consumers with sub-prime mortgages. They aren’t stealing or grifting, they’re helping! They aren’t in it for themselves, they care about you!
Tech companies are well known for their “change the world” cultiness. You don’t just work at Google. You’re connecting people to information that is life-changing, driving the digital revolution at the end of which we’ll all be so much better off than we are now.
Corporate leaders want us to believe that they are do-gooders, not money grubbers. They’ll get rich, too, but they don’t want you to think that is their mission. And, more importantly, they don’t want to think that about themselves. They believe they embody the best qualities of Andrew Carnegie (so generous! so benevolent!), Henry Ford (a visionary who cared about his employees!) and Theodore Roosevelt (a progressive man of action!) all rolled into one.
Business executives would have us believe that they are our saviors. Bill Gates is eliminating malaria and saving the children in Africa. Howard Schultz is running for president to save our democracy. Elon Musk is not only saving the planet with electric vehicles, he is exploring new frontiers in space and defending free speech for the masses.
Somehow, some way, despite all the evidence of greed and corruption, business leaders have managed to re-brand themselves as altruists. Never mind that in 2020, CEOs made 351 times more than the average worker at their company — up from 21 times more in 1965. Indeed, in the last 30 years, their average compensation has grown over 1,000%, even as they have burnished an image as humanitarians.
How? In partnership with a complicit press that buys into their companies’ expensive “we’re do-gooders” marketing campaigns, these CEOs have p.r.-ed themselves to philanthropic, good-hearted hero status. This phony message has been amplified and embraced by consumers around the world, despite all the evidence that shows that these so-called do-gooders are really no good at all. It boggles the mind, but it’s a testament to the power of marketing.
There was a time when doctors and lawyers were the pillars of the community, and that’s what every mother wanted her child to be. But now, business leaders seem to have taken that mantle. While Steve Jobs is widely known as kind of an a–hole, he’s also viewed as a visionary who changed the world. I can’t tell you how many business leaders use his quote “Stay hungry. Stay foolish” as their email sign-offs. It clothes naked capitalism with profundity and meaning.
CEOs and C-suite executives were always rich. But now they’re rich and beloved, and perceived as well-meaning and heroic.
In this new Gilded Age, journalists — themselves often politically biased and ethically compromised — have continued to spread the fiction that corporate leaders and entrepreneurs are not just “good” people but near god-like figures. The public eats it up, because it helps to fill the gaping religion-size hole in our increasingly secular culture.
And today’s ostentatiously woke CEOs are more than happy to play along, eager to prove that they are not just guys out to make a buck. Woke capitalism signals that their guiding intention is to make this a better, more just world, even as it distracts us from their only true intention: enhancing their companies’ bottom line, and their own.
Of course, the beauty of it all is that simultaneously it endows consumers with a false sense of nobility, encouraging them to believe that buying the right stuff is actually activism. “You like T-shirts? Here — buy this organic cotton T-shirt that also shows you support the LGBTQ+ community because it has our logo but with a rainbow!”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against capitalism. Far from it. I’m against the charade that is social-justice capitalism.
I want to buy stuff because it’s the best stuff on the market. Win me over with your excellence. I’ll even pay more for it. I’ll express my political affiliation with my vote, not my sneakers or soft drink of choice.
But in the age of armchair, keyboard activism, woke capitalism lets consumers badge themselves as progressive activists without actually having to do anything. It’s magic!
There is, of course, another piece of the puzzle, largely hidden from the public — the degree to which these CEOs are influenced by their Gen Z offspring.
Many have kids who are attending highly woke private elementary schools and high schools — places like Children’s Day in San Francisco, Trinity in New York and Oakwood in Los Angeles. These kids have been coddled and inculcated into gender ideology and critical race theory while denouncing white supremacy at their mostly white — and rich — fancy private schools.
They feel guilty about being white and privileged because they’ve been told they need to, and maybe they do need to feel a bit of gratitude for their “born on third base” status, but they are out to prove their worthiness by putting a woke sheen on their desire to stay rich and privileged.
And so, they are all too eager to prove that they are virtuous and willing to “do the work” to have a raised social conscience. That means needing to virtue signal even harder to prove one’s seriousness. Usually “the work” entails not that much work at all, but necessitates ousting others for wrongthink.
Witches must be burned at the stake, after all.
The kids go on to college, and graduate after four years of building safe spaces and protesting “micro-aggressions.” Many believe that whenever they feel slightly unhappy, it is obviously the result of some grave injustice. And they feel justified in demanding punishment for anyone who offends them. They take this attitude with them as they enter the workforce.
These young people have lived their lives under the impression that their every utterance matters and that older people need to listen to them! Whether they have the life experience or wisdom that should merit such attention is irrelevant. They mock their parents and grandparents with the internet catch phrase “OK Boomer,” signaling the outdated values of their hopelessly misinformed and misguided elders.
They lay claim to inscrutable labels, like demisexual and recipromantic (you guessed it, you only like someone after knowing they like you), which demand we all listen to them because they know things we don’t. They have lived lives of oppression that we stodgy cisgender parents would never understand.
So we better listen up, or they won’t visit us. Worse, they’ll cancel us. Many of us are desperate to prove that we do not deserve this dismissive “OK Boomer” meme. We are “with it,” serious-minded “virtue”-osos, too.
Today’s executives reared these kids with an “I’m not your dad, I’m your friend” parenting philosophy, and they chase their children’s approval. They want to impress their woke kids with their own progressive bona fides. They want to be cool — peers, not parents — in the eyes of their offspring, valued not for the material goods that they provide but for the values that they champion.
And now these young people are populating the companies led by “I’m not your dad, I’m your friend” CEOs. Surrounded by this cohort, CEOs are awash in approval and praise — but only if they can find a way to pander to the generation’s every shifting demand.
Thus, the woke cancel culture that started on campuses has not just migrated into the culture at large, but has come to drive policy in almost every corporate boardroom.
Crucial to this is that these kids are social media pros, which makes them especially effective enforcers. They grew up with phones in their pockets, generating moment to moment likes on TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube. As students, these Millennials and Gen Z-ers knew that they could tweet from a classroom if a professor looked at them funny and garner not only peer attention but launch university investigations into tenured professors’ classroom practices.
Now they can post a picture of their boss on Instagram, calling her out for using the gendered term “guys.” No one is safe. No one is immune.
These 20- and 30-somethings are ideological terrorists, policing their peers and elders relentlessly. They are “omnipotent moral busybodies” ridding the world of evil, and they will not rest until they exorcise immorality for the good of those being exorcised.
But as C.S. Lewis said, “I’d rather live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.” Amen to that.
Why do they do it? Because, as author and economist Thomas Sowell has said, those “who are contributing nothing to society, except their constant criticisms, can feel both intellectually and morally superior.”
By doing close to nothing — wearing the right T-shirt, affixing one’s social media profile with the right badge (for example, “I am vaccinated” or “I stand with Ukraine”) and by canceling the “wrong” people by generating outrage with a finger tap, they are saved.
For their part, the CEO dads (yes, 95% of CEOs are men) are not social media experts. Their Corporate Communications leads manage their LinkedIn accounts, and they scan their wives’ Facebook accounts on occasion to check out what the kids are up to. And that’s the extent of their social media prowess. Which makes it all the easier for the woke mob to cow them online — and even in their own offices.
The outrage generated through call-out culture and social media cancellation is real. And very satisfying for those who invoke it. But it also isn’t real. It passes quickly for the most part, if its targets have the fortitude to hunker down and bear it. As Dave Chappelle says: “Twitter’s not a real place.”
But the CEOs don’t know that. Their harried communications leaders present them with tweets and comments, and they have no sense of context. It’s words on a “page.” Could be in the New York Times or on CNN for all they know. It’s bad stuff on the screen, with the potential to prompt reputational harm, causing the stock price to plummet. And they panic.
Most CEOs lack the moral courage to hold their ground. Because they know, deep down, that they aren’t do-gooders, and they don’t want that curtain lifted. So they kowtow to the very vocal minority — the scant few employees marching outside of headquarters or emailing the head of Human Resources. These CEOs are frauds and have no actual courage.
The gutsy stance — tilting at windmills and fighting injustice — is a just a persona, a public facade, a wealth-generating marketing strategy. They love money, and they fear the angry mob because that mob may interfere with their ability to produce inter-generational private-plane wealth. They want to make as much money as possible, but they want everyone, including their kids and their kids’ cohort, to think that they really just want to make a difference in the world. “Oh gee, aw shucks, I happened to make gazillions of dollars. But that’s just ’cause I’m really, really good at heart.”
Excerpted with permission from the book “Levi’s Unbuttoned: The Woke Mob Took My Job But Gave Me My Voice” by Jennifer Sey, out Nov. 15 from All Seasons Press. All rights reserved. For more information about the book, go to levisunbuttoned.com