Jennifer Sey, who rose to Levi's brand president less than 18 months ago after a more than 20-year-career there, quit the storied denim maker Monday following disagreements over her pandemic-related activism, she said in a Substack guest post.
She was offered a $1 million severance package but refused it in order to speak out about her departure, she said. Sey also maintained that Levi's CEO Chip Bergh, at a dinner meeting last fall, told her that she "was on track to become the next CEO" but she would have to "stop talking about the school thing."
Levi's didn't comment on the specifics of her post, but confirmed by email that she resigned. Chief Commercial Officer Seth Ellison has taken on Sey's responsibilities on an interim basis as Levi's searches for her replacement, the company said.
Sey captured the media's attention in 2021 with vocal criticism of the San Francisco public schools' decision to continue with virtual learning and her subsequent decision to move to Colorado so that her children could attend school in person.
"Early on in the pandemic, I publicly questioned whether schools had to be shut down," she wrote on Monday. "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."
According to Sey's social media feeds, press interviews, protests, and other activism in the past couple of years, her focus has been on opening schools to in-person learning, shortening the distance kids must maintain when they play outside and scaling back the use of masks. While she downplayed the danger of the COVID-19 virus to children, it's not clear if she ever floated any of the most egregious unscientific claims about the disease or its potential treatments. She did, however, often align herself with those who did.
For example, she found an especially receptive ear at outlets like Fox News, and in conversation with Naomi Wolf, who was banned from Twitter after posting anti-vaccination falsehoods. Sey's post on Monday was written for the Substack account run by Bari Weiss, who declared that she is "done with COVID," and she believes masks are ineffective and the pandemic "isn't real anymore," contrary to what is medically accepted.
"National media picked up on our story, and I was asked to go on Laura Ingraham's show on Fox News," Sey said in her post. "That appearance was the last straw."
Sey isn't alone in her frustration with school policies, however. After the strict lockdown period of 2020, public health officials and educators struggled with how to balance protection against the virus with the importance of in-person learning and socialization.
With some people fighting mask-wearing and, later, vaccinations, medical experts remained concerned about the disease's ability to spread and mutate. Older people, those with underlying health conditions and pregnant people are especially vulnerable to the more deadly consequences of the COVID-19 virus, according to the CDC. Limitations in schools designed to stymie the spread of the virus have been seen as a way to protect those at risk, in addition to protecting children.
In her public discussions about the need to reopen schools, Sey often minimized the consequences for children or their potential to transmit the virus to family members who are at risk. But, COVID-19 ranks as one of the top 10 causes of death for children ages 5 through 11 years, according to the CDC. As of mid-October 2021, 8,300 children in that age group had been hospitalized with the disease and nearly 100 had died from it.
In her post, Sey, a former gymnastics champion who wrote a best-selling book and produced an award-winning documentary on child abuse within the sport, expressed some gratitude for her tenure at Levi's, but criticized the company for actions she said it took against her. She said a daily "dossier" of her social media posts was sent to Bergh, who she said once compared her to Donald Trump. In the last month, she said Bergh told her staying at the company was “untenable."
"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," she said.
Sey said the denim retailer is "trapped trying to please the mob — and silencing any dissent within the organization," she wrote. "In this it is like so many other American companies: held hostage by intolerant ideologues who do not believe in genuine inclusion or diversity."