How My top job at Levi's was pushed out of my hands by the woke mob.
At the airport in 1986, I had 10 pairs of Levi's 501s in my bag from that year. Gymnast: I was a 17-year-old national champion, and I was going to the Soviet Union for the Goodwill Games, a rogue Olympics-level competition organized by CNN founder Ted Turner while the Soviet Union and the United States were boycotting each other. I was going to compete in the Goodwill Games, a rogue Olympics-level competition organized by Turner.
The jeans were used to trade for lycra: the Russians' leotards were a symbol of tautness, prestige, and discipline. But they wanted my denim and everything it stood for: American toughness, freedom, and individualism, all of which they saw in it.
In the past, I wore Levi's every day. I'd been a fan since I can remember. That's not true, though. If you told me back then that I would one day become president of the brand, I wouldn't have believed you at all. If you told me that after all that, after almost all of my career at one company, that I would quit, I'd think you were crazy.
Today, I'm going to do just that. Why? It's because after all these years, the company I love has lost sight of the values that made people all over the world, even gymnasts in the old Soviet Union, want to wear Levi's.
My first job at Levi's was as an assistant marketing manager in 1999, just a few months after I turned 30. As time went on, I saw the company change with each new trend. My job was to market the U.S. at the time skinny jeans were all the rage in the U.S. At the time high-waists became popular, I was the chief marketing officer. As time went on, I became the global brand president in 2020. I was the first woman to hold this job at the time. Low-rise is back.
During my two decades at Levi's, I married. I had two children. I got married and we broke up. I had two more children. I married again. The company has been the one thing that has always been there for me. When I've been at work, I've always felt like I could bring my whole self to the job, including my political activism.
That advocacy has always been about kids.
In 2008, when I was a vice president of marketing, I wrote a memoir about my time as an elite gymnast that talked about the bad parts of the sport, like how children were abused. The gymnastics community told me to expect legal action and violence. They thought I was just a bitter loser who was just trying to make a buck, not someone who wanted to win back. They said I was a thief and a liar. However, Levi stood by me. Many people thought of me as a hero.
When COVID hit, things changed. Early in the pandemic, I said that I didn't know if schools should be closed. This didn't bother me at all. In my mind, the harsh policies would do the most harm to those least at risk, and the burden would fall hardest on poor kids who attend public schools.
To get the schools to stay open, I wrote op-eds, did interviews on local news shows, met with the mayor's office, organized rallies and used social media to plead for them. Because I spoke out, I was punished. People have been calling me racist again. This is strange because I have two black sons who are both eugenicists and conspiracy theorists about QAnon (Q).
In 2020, I finally got the call. He said, "You know what? When you speak, you speak for the company," and he said I should stop talking. I said, "My title is not in my Twitter bio." I'm a public school mom with four kids.
There kept being calls. From the law: HR: This. From someone on the board. From my boss, the CEO of the company: Data on the safety of schools and the harms caused by virtual learning were used to show why I was so concerned about this. While they didn't try to stop me from talking, I was told over and over again to "think about what I said."
Colleagues kept talking about how important it was to get rid of Trump in the November election all the time. I also talked about my support for Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primary and my sadness over the racial killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Nobody at the company said anything about that.
Then, in October 2020, when it was clear that public schools would not be open that fall, I asked the company's leaders if we could speak out about school closures in our city, San Francisco. We often take a stand on political issues that affect our employees. We've spoken out about gay rights, voting rights, gun safety, and many other things, as well.
This time, the response was different, but it was still the same thing. "We don't get involved in things like this," I was told. There are also a lot of things that could go wrong if we speak up too much, starting with the many execs who have kids in private schools in the city.
Because I didn't want to stop talking, this is what I did. I kept calling out hypocritical and unproven policies. I met with the mayor's office, and then I moved my whole family from California to Denver so that my kindergartner could finally go to real school. We were able to get him into a public school where he could learn both English and Spanish at the same time, just like the one he was supposed to go to in San Francisco.
Our story was picked up by the national media. I was asked to go on Laura Ingraham's show on Fox News. That was the last straw for me. There were a lot of negative comments from Levi's employees about me. They said that I was anti-science, anti-fat, anti-transgender, and racist, because I'd retweeted a study that found a link between obesity and poor health outcomes. I also said that we should not stop celebrating Mother's Day because it doesn't include adoptive and step moms. Because of my husband's COVID views, they also made fun of me for being his wife and making fun of what he said on social media.
A companywide meeting that I used to look forward to but now dread took place at our regular town halls. All of this drama took place there.
I was also asked to go on a "apology tour" by a person at the company. "I was told that the main thing that people didn't like about me was that I wasn't a good friend of the Black people at Levi's." To say that "I am an imperfect friend," I was told (I refused.)
The fact that I was asked to be the executive sponsor of the Black Employee Resource Group by two black employees in 2017 didn't matter. I didn't care. The fact that I've been fighting for kids for a long time didn't mean anything to them. I didn't care that I was just giving facts. As a personal friend, the HR head told me to keep quiet even if I thought the schools were bad, it was classist, or I thought I was probably right about everything else. Even though I was probably right about most of it, I still shouldn't say so. "Why shouldn't I?" kept coming to my mind.
At a dinner with the CEO in the fall of 2021, I learned 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, so I should be in charge. I was the only thing in my way, he said. To stop talking about the school thing, I just had to stop talking about it
It would not stop. They said people should boycott Levi's until I was fired from Twitter. Some of them had more than half a million followers. My old gymnastics fans did the same thing when they saw me. Their ethics hotline number and emails were called, and they talked to each other.
Every day, the head of corporate communications sent the CEO a dossier of my tweets and all of my online interactions from the day before to the CEO. One time, the CEO said that I was "acting like Donald Trump." I was embarrassed, so I turned off my camera to think about it for a while.
Last month, the CEO told me it was "impossible" for me to stay. When I was fired, I was offered a $1 million severance package. I knew I'd have to sign a nondisclosure agreement about why I was fired.
The money would be great. But I can't. Levi's, I'm sorry.
In the beginning, I didn't want to be different. I don't want to fight. In the United States, Levi's is known for making strong pants for people who worked hard and dreamed of finding gold in the dirt. This country had a shorthand for what was good and right. When I think about my trip to Moscow, so many years ago, I still get a little choked up.
But now, the company doesn't believe that. It's stuck trying to please the mob, while trying to silence any dissent in the organization. A lot of American businesses are held hostage by people who don't believe in real inclusion or diversity. This is how it is with this one.
As a manager for more than two decades at the company, I took my job the most seriously. People who were good workers turned out to be executives because I helped them learn how to be good mentors and guides, I was alone at the end. In public, no one said they agreed with me or even that they didn't agree with me, but they still backed my right to say what I thought.
People who used to work with me think this is wrong. I think they didn't say anything because they didn't want to lose their jobs or get angry at the mob. Hope they'll come to terms with the fact that it's true one day.
I will always wear my old 501 jeans. But today, I'll be giving up my job at Levi's. As a reward, I get to keep my voice.