Ep 11: Viewpoint diversity and suppressing debate during the pandemic - Jennifer Sey
Former Levi's Global Brand manager and US national champion gymnast, Jennifer Sey, on getting fired for her outspoken views on reopening schools during the pandemic.
Arjun: no issue divided Americans more during the pandemic than how school should operate. Our guest today, Jennifer Sey, is a mother of four and former global brand president of Levi's, who was forced out of her job for her outspoken views on why school should have opened earlier and without mask mandates. Prior to her career at Levi's, Jennifer was a seven time member of the U.S. Women's National Gymnastics team and was the 1986 US Women's All-Around National Champion. She wrote about her mental health and physical struggles as a gymnast in Chalked Up: My life in Elite Gynmastics.
She also is one of the producers of Athlete A, a documentary on the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics that won an Emmy for outstanding investigative documentary. Jennifer's tweet stream is really interesting. If you're looking to spice up your Twitter feed, I strongly recommend your follow her.
She's very thoughtful. She's very outspoken. She's intelligent and she's pretty cool. So I'm delighted to have her here on the show today. Welcome Jennifer.
Jennifer: Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
Arjun: Okay, so let's start with the big one. you were at Levi's for more than 20 years, a pretty impressive career going from assistant marketing manager to global brand president. And at one time were picked as a possible successor, to be the CEO, but then you quit because you refused to sign this non-disclosure agreement that had a million dollar severance package.
Why did Levi's ask you to leave?
Jennifer: In the beginning of the pandemic. the first thing I spoke out about was playground closures, which may not mean much to some people, but if you live in an urban environment, in an apartment with a bunch of kids in your apartment, it's a struggle. And I, wasn't just thinking of myself.
Jennifer: I was thinking about all the families in my neighborhood who don't have yards, who have young children and very small apartments sometimes, in subsidized housing and they're all then trapped at home together. And this is really problematic if you have young children. And pretty early on, we knew that outside was a safer place to be. And yet many local public health, leaders just wanted everyone to stay home. And they closed parks and they closed hiking trails and they closed playground and even beaches. And so that's where I started. But I did sort of evolve to talking about schools needing, to open,
In California, which is where I lived, schools were closed for 18 months; it was the state closed the longest. And I became very frustrated with this in the fall of 2020, when there seemed to be no hope of public schools opening and private schools did open, I should state. So that just seemed incredibly inequitable to me and, and just not right.
And so I was very outspoken about this. I got feedback throughout,the 18 months to two year period while I was at Levi's that I should tone it down. And I said, no, thank you. I felt this was really important. And I felt like it was an extension of the advocacy I'd done for children in sport, where I've been outspoken about abuse within the Olympic movement.
And that all seems fine now, but I will tell you, in the beginning, when I wrote my book in 2008, that was not fine. What I said was unacceptable and I was blackballed and demonized and called a liar and a grifter. So I understood that sometimes saying things that are true, but unpopular, requires you to draw on your own personal strength if you want to, get at the truth.
And so I persisted, in the sport and I felt like the same would happen with kids in schools and COVID. I think my tone is diplomatic, not super aggressive. I cited studies, Et cetera about, the fact that kids are relatively left unharmed from COVID, they spread it less, they get it less, they don't get particularly sick.
And I just felt it was too important to speak out for the 50 million public school students in the U S. and so,, I said, there's some areas I won't touch, even though I have strong views on them, but kids in schools, that's my line. I'm just not gonna stay quiet on this.
Jennifer: And my kids are in public school. My friend's kids are in public school. Your kids are going to private in-person right now. So it's not really fair for you to tell me, I shouldn't ask for the same thing. So that was what happened back and forth over 18 months to two years.
And ultimately it was presented to me that I could be the CEO. I was in a seat that was a viable candidate for that role. And there was a background check done. And I think, ultimately the long and short of it is the things I said were just too controversial for me to ever hold the CEO post that's what was determined. Therefore, I couldn't hold my current post as brand president because that chair is a, a feeder role for the CEO.
And in corporate America, you gotta have a couple options, and if I was occupying a seat that was supposed to feed into CEO, but I could never hold that job, I was blocking somebody else from getting it. It was determined that I could not hold my current role, even though I was, doing a really good job in that role and was offered severance.
Some of the details of this are debated between me and Levi's, but I was offered the severance. It was not sent to me officially, even though I asked many times, but I knew in my role as brand president, that you don't get severance without signing a nondisclosure agreement. and the non-disclosure agreement -it wouldn't prevent me from speaking out about schools and kids in the future. Certainly, and that's been their defenses. We wouldn't have asked her not to do that, but it would have prevented me from speaking out about the terms of my dismissal. And I felt like that was not okay with me because as I've been doing, I want to talk about free speech and what are the limits and, what are we each,promised as citizens and signing a non-disclosure would me be limiting my own speech about why I was dismissed. And so that was unacceptable to me. So I quit without the severance and told the story of my outspokenness.
Arjun: I have a followup question to that, which is, you mentioned that you were told your positions were too controversial or offensive, and I'm curious- controversial to who?
Jennifer: That's a really good question. I think, first of all, you have to know what San Francisco, which is where I lived, is like where there wasn't a lot of division, or at least there wasn't much division that was presented in visible. I think there actually was. And in fact, the day after I resigned very publicly San Francisco parents voted to recall three members of the board of education.
It was very decisive recall, close to 75% voted in a special election to recall three members of the board of education for dereliction of duty, essentially because they failed to open schools. There were some other issues in there, but that was the overriding issue. And so those folks all agreed with me that this was unacceptable, at least by, mid fall of 2020.
Most people accept at this point that closing in the spring of 2020 was we needed to do that and get our bearings, but that with the data, accumulating about kids and spread and schools being somewhat limited, red state started open in the fall. Many European countries started to open as early as may, 2020, because they wanted to prioritize the educational and emotional health of children.
I think it appeared more controversial than it was, if that makes sense. There was this sort of illusion of consensus created in the bubble of San Francisco, but those parents express their real views when they went to the ballot box. And I think this is one of the biggest problems in all of this is there's this by suppression of debate and dissent and dialogue there's an illusion of consensus created around the science or around what parents want, but it's not real. They do it by silencing people and that's incredibly problematic. But I think, you know, I'd go back to the bubble of San Francisco. I think leadership in the company believed that this was an incredibly controversial view.
Jennifer: Now, again, I find this hypocritical because they were sending their own kids to school. So clearly they understood, my peers, that schools could be safe. I don't think it was ever about the kind of content of schools, but just the saying of a thing that appeared controversial in the bubble of San Francisco.
And it got positioned as this very alt-right or right wing anti-science racist view. And once those labels are attached to you, you become quite unemployable. Nobody wants to hire a anti-science racist or let that person stay in a job. And so those labels all got attached to me, which made me a, an invalid leader.
Arjun: Pariah. So let's get to that Jennifer and make sure that, we cleared the air just on your stands on the basic stuff. So COVID, vaccination your assessment of the level of risk for adults, children, all that stuff. So that it's clear where you stand versus just getting little snippets.
Jennifer: Sure. I will say, my views have evolved. They're not static. And I actually think that's a really important point because none of our views should be static as new information is available to us. And it's as if this thing was decided from the beginning that schools were dangerous and children were super spreaders and we never, collectively, as a community evolved our views on that.
You can't get at the truth when you just hold a thing at a point in time as new data is available. I would just say that my, my views have not been completely static, but I would say from the very beginning, there was clear data available. Martin Kulldorff epidemiologist doctor from Harvard, was at Harvard in April of 2020, shared information about the age stratified risk of COVID.
Jennifer: So a person over 70 years old is I think 3000 times more likely than a child to die or have a very health outcome. That was April, 2020. So I was seeking out, a wide range of views. And there was this notion that the medical community doctors were completely aligned, that children were dangerous super spreaders and schools needed to be closed.
And yet there was not consensus on this. Doctors from Harvard, like Dr. Martin Kulldorff doctors from Stanford, like Jay Bhattacharya, Doctors from Oxford, Sunetra Gupta these are credible institutions to say the least. And these are very credible doctors were presenting data and writing about the low risk to children from the very beginning, but they were demonized and ostracized from the outset as quacks when they'd been lionized in the past.
These were very, well-established very credible doctors, leaders in their field, but, the strategy was to create the illusion of consensus around schools. And I don't understand why, because again, in Europe you saw schools opening in Denmark as early as May. Sweden never closed primary schools because they prioritize children. And the CDC's own pre pandemic playbook said, schools should never close for more than four weeks because it's too harmful to kids. So this illusion of consensus was created that never really existed. And if you bothered to go and read and find out more you would know that. Most people didn't and those folks that I cited in many more were demonized and, deemed quacks.
Jennifer: So my perspective from the very beginning was that schools needed to open. I didn't have strong views. There were no vaccines available at this point. So I didn't have a view on that. I was fine schools opening with mass. That was fine to me. I just felt school needed to open.
Intuitively we understand that this would be harmful before we have any data. And now there is data available that backs up the intuition of anybody that had been paying attention. We have data about the learning loss. We have data about the mental health impacts. Chronic absenteeism right now is like at 40% in major cities where schools were closed for an extended period of time.
Jennifer: 40% of kids are out of school more than 10% of the time. That's insane. And we knew before this, that educational attainment impacts quality of life and life years. Those who don't graduate high school, or they earn last, they have 50% higher unemployment, they don't live as long, they're 60 times more likely to go to prison.
And if you don't read by third grade, you're four times more likely not to graduate high school. This was all available before. And so to me, it just seemed critical that we prevent this from happening and now all the facts and the data are bearing it out. So I stand by my, advocacy around open schools.
Jennifer: When it comes to masks, and you talked about this in the beginning, I didn't really have a view until like late spring, 2021. I didn't talk about it. I wore my mask when I needed to. And my opinion as expressed in spring of 21 was really around very young children. I have a five-year-old daughter, she was two and a half when this started, she spent close to half her life in a mask in preschool. This is a kid who can't put her shoes on the right feet, who was wearing a diaper for the first part of this. Like the idea that she could wear a mask in such a way that would actually protect her and others seemed so ludicrous to me on its face.
And by the way, she's learning to talk. She's learning to read facial expressions, engage with people. So it's more harmful for these younger children and less effective. It would seem to me. And so the only thing... I never talked about masks on older kids, I don't have, I have evolved stronger opinions on that now, but I certainly didn't during my time at Levi's. But for very young children, it just seemed ineffective and problematic. So why would you do it? And by the way, the U.S. Is an outlier here. So no European country requires a two year old to mask, not one. So why do we do it? So that's my view on masks. I'm particularly opposed to it on very young children who are learning to talk and connect and, such crucial years of their development.
As far as vaccination, I got vaccinated in May as soon as it was available, basically to the general population. I did my duty. I was happy to do it. I was opposed to mandates from the beginning. it seemed to me that while something is an emergency use authorization and we don't have any medium to long-term data on the effects that could be problematic. And now you know when I say my views have evolved now that we know that the vaccine is quote unquote leaky and it doesn't prevent transmission and you are probably going to get it in your life anyway, it seems particularly silly to me to mandate it because it's not actually preventing spread.
And then the last thing I will say is about boosters, which of course I had no opinion on until recently because they weren't really happening. But my issue on the boosters is with college students in particular. I think colleges are one of the only places that require boosters. Both of my children that were in college, one just graduated, were required to be boosted and they got boosted. But these kids... I don't understand why you'd single these kids out. The professors aren't required, just the students in most instances. These kids are least likely to get sick because they're young. They're the most likely -I have two sons- to have adverse impacts like myocarditis, which impacts, young men, not in outsized numbers, but it happens.
I don't understand why you would make these boys do it. Mine did. They were happy to do it. They want to be on campus, but I don't think that the benefits are clear. I think the data shows that the benefits are not clear. So why are we requiring it?
Jennifer: That's my view. Does that cover all the points you asked?
Arjun: You did. Yeah, Cool. Yeah, by the way, for what it's worth, my sister lives in London and so my niece and nephew who I'm very close to, we looked all the time at the data there. And it's exactly, as you said. They were in school right away. I think, I can't even remember if they closed for even a few weeks. It was very short if at all, they masked up and they went right back. And we would joke, till the end, we did the inverse, they were like shut down the schools and it keeps the pubs open.
Jennifer: Yeah. Yeah. Denmark did the same from the very beginning and I think it's a culture, that prioritizes children more. And I, from what I find particularly egregiouss is that dynamic that you just described-- bars and restaurants open, which I supported that they opened because I think small business owners really suffered and struggled during this time. I wasn't saying no close the bars and restaurants cause that harms small business owners. But to prioritize those over schools, to me says societaly we don't prioritize children. And also the children are the most dangerous people among us. That's what it says. We may not like it, but it does absolutely say that if you think a child doesn't internalize that's incorrect, they absolutely internalize it.
And in a place like New York city, where the only people required to mass are two to four year olds that sends a signal to the world and to that child that they are dangerous. That's incredibly problematic and damaging for the child, in my opinion.
I have, so I have four kids and when the lockdown happened, I actually had four kids and a foster kid, at home. Yeah. And homeschool, they were not prepared for homeschooling
Jennifer: No, we weren't as parents. I was just talking to someone this morning, who is a homeschooler and he made the choice the year before COVID started, but it's different. You prepare curriculum, you set your life up. So you can, you can't just ask parents who are working full time to do this on a turn on a dime and be qualified homeschoolers. You can't. It doesn't work. Anyway, sorry.
Dan: No, that's I'm wondering like, cause I feel the same way where I, I was a good little soldier, kept my kids home, masked up, got vaccinated, got boosted, did everything I was supposed to do. My cousin has a daughter in Catholic school. She was back. I don't know how quickly she was back, but she was an in-person schooling far, sooner.
There wasn't one outbreak of COVID there. So I think in retrospect, I can say, I feel like I did the right thing, keeping my kids home. It also, might've been a mistake. And I think those two things can coexist. I'm curious, and you may not be prepared to answer this question, but do you have any idea how or why the debate over schools got hijacked so in favor of shutting?
To be clear, they were only shut down in deep blue cities in deep blue states. So they weren't shut everywhere. and that alone, what I just laid out, reflects the polarization. There's about 50 million public school students in the country and public school students in many states and fly- over country as they call it.
Jennifer: We're open in the fall, in August of 2020 and their outcomes weren't any worse. So I think it just became highly politicized. I don't have a good sort of final answer on this. I'm still thinking through it, but it seems to me when Trump said schools needed to open that was like a line in the sand.
And if you were, if you hated Trump, you were going to take the opposite view. And I didn't like Trump. I didn't vote for Trump. I didn't vote for him either time. But that is irrelevant in terms of whether kids were being harmed with long-term school closure. So it seemed to me that is when it took on a highly kind of politicized nature.
And if you were a good Democrat who cared about people, you thought schools should be closed. And if you were a bad person who didn't care, if teachers died, you liked Ron DiSantis and you were an alt-right conspiracy theorist. That's the line and the stand that got drawn. And I rejected that. I just said that's dumb. No, that's dumb. I'm not going to.
And again, we ignored everything that was happening in Europe. Everything. European countries, some socialists were opening schools. this dynamic in the United States was unique in a sense. And if you talk to Europeans about it, they're flummoxed by it.
They don't understand it. So I think it started then with Trump and then politicians, doubled-down and Gavin Newsom, the governor of my former state, took a stand in direct opposition to what Trump said. And I do think that, I'll admit, and perhaps this was naive leading up to the November election in 2020, I did think Democrats wanted to make this an issue to run on, right? Like we are the ones that care about kids and we care about teachers and we care about unions. And so we are for closed schools. And I thought if Biden wins, it'll be over. But it wasn't because I think it was just too in the culture at that point. We were too tribal at that point. And you couldn't put the genie back in the bottle.
Arjun: Actually, I have a slightly personal question for you, Jennifer, if you don't mind, I'm curious. Why did you send your children to public school when you were clearly in a wealthy position you could have afforded private school? Why did you go there?
Jennifer: I believe in public schools, I believe in the public school system. I believe in that project, for, Americans and my family is not above that. And I think the value of school goes beyond the education and what you learn, obviously, that really matters. But I think part of the value of going to school is being around people that are different than you.
not being in this sort of cloistered environment where everybody is of the same background as you, that's not life, that's not realistic. I did not want that for my children. I have two older children, one just graduated from college, a public university in California. He graduated from Berkeley and another one just finished his freshman year out of state.
Jennifer: They both went to public school from kindergarten through high school in San Francisco. I feel they got a great education. I feel,the value in being around students of many different backgrounds was part of that education. And that's what I want for my kids. I don't want to raise them in a kind of hot house where they can't deal with lots of different kinds of people.
I mean, no offense to people that choose to send their kids to private. And I went to private for part of my growing up, but that's not what I wanted for my own kids. I want them to be exposed to more than that.
Arjun: I love that bit, by the way. We're definitely pulling that out as a quote, I'm going to make sure that. My wife and I generally talk about this and whether we're going to get send our kids. We're very much public school as well, because we both went public. Or at least I did up more here, she grew up in India. and it's a little hard as you probably know, because you're in the Bay Area and everyone talks about, oh, this school they're doing this and they have that. And you really have to steel yourself into that's lovely. I'm not convinced that's so required or important. I'm quite happy with what we get for free next door. Andreminding yourself that all the time.
Jennifer: You do and you know what? and I should state that, when my older boys started school, I didn't have really enough money to send them to private. I mean,I was 30, or I was in my early thirties. I was a marketing manager. that, wasn't the main reason. The main reason is what I just shared with you.
We could have done it. It would have been a struggle. But certainly as I became more successful, we could have done so more easily. But as I looked around in San Francisco, I didn't want what the private schools had to offer my kids. It just felt like this incredibly cloistered environment. And I wanted them to exist in the world in the city.
So why live in a city where you live side by side with all kinds of different folks, immigrants and people from all different backgrounds, if you're just gonna cut that off and curtail it. It just seems silly to me go live in the suburbs then, or go live in a gated community.
I don't understand it. It doesn't make any sense to me. So it's just not what I wanted for my kids. And as I participated in the public school system in San Francisco as a mom and saw the education, my kids were getting, I felt like they were getting a solid education and they were very engaged with learningso I had no issue to ever, why would I pull them out? It just was something that always made sense to me. I guess.That jumped out at me as I was just reading about your story was the fact that at one point you were discouraged from bringing up the fact that private schools in San Francisco were open because a lot of folks on the executive team at Levi's had their kids in private school. And I just thought that was an incredible let them eat cake moment in a way.
I feel like this whole thing is a, let them eat cake moment, honestly. And that's why I just get so angry. And I know I have a lot of privilege. I know that I'm not pretending that I do not. But I just couldn't help but think about the people that didn't the whole time and the people that had their kids at home, or the essential workers who had kids at home who had to leave them by themselves while they went to work at either Safeway or in their job as a nurse or a police officer.
All of these restrictions that we put in place that were supposedly to protect the most vulnerable harmed the most vulnerable here. Let me just tell you a brief story. I am in the process of making a documentary film about the impact of school closures. And I interviewed a family in San Francisco last week.
Jennifer: There's a low-income family, lovely family, four kids, three of them grown one high school junior and when all of this started. The wife's mother lives with them. She has dementia. She's very old, obviously vulnerable. The husband has had serious health issues. Had a stroke. Can't work is on disability, obviously vulnerable.
The mother got laid off in may of 2020. And the kid who is an amazing football player and his hope for going to a four year college was to get a scholarship. So this kid, close to 300 pounds, six foot five trapped in this very, in his tiny room for 18 months, he told me he didn't leave his house for six months.
He was on zoom school, no football. Couldn't play his whole senior year. Therefore could not get recruited. Therefore is not in a four year college. I asked her directly the mom, the policies were created for families just like yours to protect your elderly mom, your vulnerable husband. Do you feel grateful that these policies were enacted?
Literally yours was the imaginary hypothetical family that was cited. And she looked at me stunned. Like she didn't know that. And no, I would never ask my son to sacrifice his future for my mother who's in her nineties, I would never do that. That doesn't even make sense. It upends the whole order of things.
She seems shocked that was even the logic and rationale. And she said, I just wanted the choice for my son to have his future and his opportunity. And she didn't. And then now it's unclear. He's in community college, playing football, hoping he can get noticed there and make it to a four-year college.
But these sorts of stories, like I didn't even know people with all of these kinds of stories, some of them I knew, but they were not hard to imagine if you just had a little curiosity and empathy. And meanwhile, his private school peers were all playing and getting recruited.
Let's be clear. The schools still had scholarships. They were still out recruiting, but not him, the kid who needed it most. So I don't know that just breaks my heart. And this idea that, It's just two weeks or two months or two years. That's not true for this kid. It could be forever if he ends up just going to community college for two years, not going to a you know D1 for a year or D2
that alters the course of his life and lower educational attainment means fewer life years. These are all proven statistics. So it just seems all the policies that were stated to protect vulnerable populations, including low-income families, harmed them the most. And that seems obvious to me from the beginning and the data certainly bearing that out. Now. Now I can't remember what your question was and if I even answered it, did I answer it?
Arjun: Essentially, this is a bit of a generalization, but if you talk to most parents and grandparents, I think most of them would be like, I would much rather sacrifice my future and what's left of it for the children, because they have a lot more years left and we got it backwards. We were like, no, save them. And I know talking, my parents live with us and they're in their seventies and my dad just turned 80. And of course we were very cautious and careful with them, but at any moment, my parents were first like, it's the kids. It's not us. We're at the of life.
Jennifer: Yeah. I think most grandparents would say that, but besides that, and that should be the natural order I think, is that, older people don't ask young people to give up their lives and experiences so that, they can live a little longer, but the data didn't support it either.
you had the studies coming out of Sweden, for instance, which kept schools open the whole time. there were almost zero instances of kids contracting COVID in-school and then, giving it to an elderly relative. And you have more of those multi-gen households there. The fact is that if kids weren't in school, some were left very isolated at home alone, and that caused all kinds of mental health impacts.
Jennifer: But by and large, those kids weren't at home, they were in other less safe conditions than school. And, you had studies like this was Wisconsin study led by Dr. Tracy Hoeg, which came out in October of 2020, where the spread in schools was lower than in the community because of the precautions taken.
And so kids were actually safer in school and less likely to contract COVID than they were, galavanting around the community. Or in the case of younger children, you had them dropped with neighbors or older relatives because parents had to go to work and you can't leave a five or six year old home alone. Or in San Francisco, for instance, they had these learning hubs that might not be the right name, but they had these places where kids could go where they had, stronger internet. and they could do their zoom school. And those were staffed by hourly wage workers instead of teachers. and you're cramming way more kids into a room than you hadn't a classroom. You had no requirements around ventilation or distancing. So again, the alternative was usually less safe than schools. So it just, the whole thing was upside down and backwards. And there's precautions you can take, as I'm sure you did with your parents in the home, to make sure as much as possible that they're safe.
Arjun: Yeah. definitely. let me switch gears,on, on topic that's related, I'm curious, what do you think about companies taking a stance on political issues?
Jennifer: So this is one where I think I'm evolving, my views as well. I would just say I pride myself on not necessarily being too static in my opinions. I try to be fairly agile as I, learn new things. I think that's important. I should state that as the brand president, before that the chief marketing officer, I was certainly the lead on taking stances on some many issues.
Levi's has been very outspoken and, on many progressive issues, LGBTQ equality since the eighties, gun violence prevention. I not only supported all these initiatives, but led many of them.As I think back on my role in that I still stand by it, by and large, I will say, I think our general philosophy was, and I still say our cause I'm talking in the past, or at least where we started was we took stance and took action on things that affected our employees. That was our community. And so we integrated factories in the south before the law required it, those were owned and operated factories. Levi's was the first fortune 500 company to offer same-sex partner benefits in 1992. nobody was even talking about marriage equality. I think, that's really important. I think you protect your employees. You further the health of your employees. I think it gets fuzzier when you're taking external stances that perhaps have less to do with your own employees. And I'm not totally sure where the line is.
As I think back, I know that some of the stances that we took made a percentage of employees feel very unwelcome in the company. Because it's naive to think that you can have a company of thousands and thousands of people and everybody is up one viewpoint. So I think what I would do differently if I were to go back, is I would account for that more in how we came out and took a stand on things. So I might still advocate the same stance that was taken on gun safety and gun violence prevention. The whole reason that we came out and took a stance on that when I was there was that a consumer had brought a gun in a store and it had gone off accidentally and no one was hurt, but the thinking was we need to protect our own employees and our sales associates.
Jennifer: So we asked, even an open carry state, please don't bring guns in our store. I stand by that, but I would have taken greater pains to make employees feel welcome, who had a different view, rather than dismissing them and pretending they didn't exist.
I would have had town halls where people could discuss it. I would say, I understand many of us have different views on this subject. Here's why we're doing it. You are still welcome here. You are still welcome to express your view. but I think we batted those folks aside and pretend that they didn't exist.
And that has a real sort of chilling and silencing effect. And I think the long-term impact of that kind of silencing of any debate and dissent is you end up not talking about issues that pertain to your business too. Like you just get dumber because you send the signal that if you don't agree with what leadership is doing, you better not say it. And that's a problem, for anyone who works in business, you don't have the answers from the beginning. Well, it's true in any venue, really? And if you can't debate it from all sides, you're more likely to make stupid decisions.
What I learned very quickly, clearly is, we were a company and Levi's still is a company that claims to really value diversity and I value it as well. And I think this is one of the questions you wanted to ask. I do value it. I think, as a company with a very diverse consumer base, if we have a very uniform employee base, I don't think we're going to understand and adequately serve that diverse consumer base.
So I support all the initiatives to create diversity within the company, but that has to include viewpoint diversity as well. And I quickly learned that it did not include viewpoint diversity. Here's an example where Levi's is an American company. What if we staffed all of the 110 countries, we operated with Americans.
If we staffed the India office with all Americans, would we service that? We wouldn't understand the community. We wouldn't understand the consumer. We wouldn't be able to adequately serve that consumer population. And so diversity is important. And I use that example to take it out of the polarization around, racial diversity, for instance, within America, which I do support, a more diverse employee base, in the U S as well, for the same reason, I don't think you can adequately serve a diverse consumer base if you don't have a diverse employee base, there's just, it's practical and it's wrong, right? To just have, one, race or class of people staffing the organization. But I think viewpoint diversity has to be part of that as well. And I didn't realize that it wasn't until I took a little step outside of the, the orthodoxy and was whoa. I realized very quickly that viewpoint diversity is not necessarily welcome.
Dan: I'm sorry, I don't mean to filibuster here. I just, I there's some, there's one question I've been dying to ask that you really kind of lead into here which is Arjun and I had a chance to speak professor of philosophy has dedicated his work to studying polarisation. One of the things he talked about was the way that we're at the level of polarization now where brands are literally team red or team blue. And an example he gave was like Dunkin Donuts Starbucks, for example, or, Cracker Barrel versus Whole Foods. And you have a you're a marketer. You have a consumer marketing background. Do you feel like we might have reached this point in peak polarization where brands have to decide which color am I going to align myself with?
Jennifer: I think that we are at the point where they have decided, I don't think that they have to. And I think it's, problematic, to make that decision and, for a brand like Levi's, which has a very diverse consumer base that actually tilts more red than blue, slightly, which is unusual for a fashion, if you put it in the fashion category for an apparel brand, right? Most fashion tilts, more blue than red. Levi's by hair tilts, more red. and part of that is distribution, where it's available. And I think part of that is its legacy of rugged individualism. and there was a long period of time where they failed to address. We failed to address this new youthful population. And so we lost some of that. So it tilts slightly more to the right, but I think more importantly, it's a really inclusive brand. And so it's old people and young people and gay people, straight people and, farmers and hip hop kids and everything in between.
a smaller brand can say I'm red or blue, right? Fine. If you're like Outdoor Voices, this very tiny yoga fitness brand, you can be edgy and hipster and blue- state only Levi's can't do that. Nike can't do that. That the business is too big. I'm just talking, I'm not even talking about right and wrong here.
Jennifer: I'm just talking about the business reality of who you need to appeal to and attract. They can't sustain a business, the size that it is, and pick a team. And so I think the question is how do you create a truly inclusive brand that welcomes everyone? I think Levi's was kind of on the road to doing that.
a lot of the work that I had done in my time as chief marketing officer was advocating for people to simply use their voice, which is in essence, is about having a culture of free speech. We weren't saying what to say. We were saying stand up and say what you believe. Well, I meant that.
Jennifer: Apparently the company didn't. It was say what you believe if you believe this thing that we say is okay. And so yes, I do think brands are choosing. I don't think they have to. And I think they're going to have to unwind some of it because it's simply not compatible with growth at the end of the day. Because look, the country's divided, it's 50, 50, let's be clear.
It's kind of 50 50. And the irony is more people are in the moderate middle then I think is reflected by the tone of the conversation. It's like the 5% on either side are very extreme and drive the tenor and the tone of the conversation. I think the issue about reproductive rights is a really great example.
I think something like 75% of people support reproductive health care, inclusive of abortion, but with restrictions. That's most people, if it's 75%, that means it includes Democrats and Republicans, but the conversation is dictated by the fringes. It's like abortion on demand up to 40 weeks, or, even before conception, you can't.
Yeah. Yeah. So life begins before conception. It's that's not actually what the majority of Americans believe, but this 5% on either side, dominate the conversation and make everybody else too afraid to say what they actually think. And so I think those of us that are in that 75% need to say what we actually think, because we're the majority.
Arjun: It's interesting. This is a little bit of an aside. So , The Factual, which is the company I founded, the thesis is exactly what you said, Jennifer. We have this hypothesis that most of us are in the middle, but our voice is lost because of the extreme upgrade. And so we've got this new service that helps people from all across the nation. We have readers in all 50 states and 3000 zip codes. It's CEOs, it's unemployed, homeless people. It's pastors, ex-convicts it's the country. And we discuss the news and debate the news. But we do a few things that, are very different than a Twitter. So one for example is everyone's anonymous and your handle changes every time, which means you're not held trapped to your previously held views.
You can change, and you're never going to be fired based on cause no, one's going to know. But all comments are rated for quality and the way that the discussion is structured and our news service structure, we show viewpoints from all across the political spectrum. And then we pose these poll questions to help people get insights on things.
So particularly on abortion, we asked exactly the question you did. We said, do you support abortion at zero weeks, 15 weeks or 26 weeks? And it turns out that the majority supported 15 weeks and we have very much a red and a blue mix. And you'll see, like just to put it out there, we have twice poll and should Trump run again in 24?
And it was the most wide pole I've ever seen. 90% said, no, it was so shocking. And then we've had other things around guns and will additional gun legislation help. And actually 50% said, no things like But on abortion, the majority said 15 weeks. So they all want something with some restrictions, but you don't get to hear that because both sides are like, oh no, if you give an inch, that's it, its over.
Jennifer: And a lot of the states that are at issue right now, that the progressive five or 10% are demonizing. They're not saying never, they're saying 15, 16, 17 weeks. That's what they're saying. That is also not to keep citing Europe.
What the majority of European countries have It's not unlimited up till 39 weeks, which no one does anyway. So I don't even know why that's cited an example, like if you were 39 weeks pregnant and you decided you didn't want the baby, the doctor would do a C-section and you would give it up for adoption.
I don't even understand the example, that the right uses in this case to inflame, I will say one, one thing. I think that's right. I think most people, and I've learned this have. Cohesion in the middle. And I think, the school board example that recall that I cited in San Francisco on February 15th is illustrative of that.
Jennifer: Most people agreed that the board was not doing their job and voted to recall. That is not how it felt in San Francisco. You did not hear that from 70 to 75% of people, because if they were smart, they were watching what was happening to people like me, who did say it. And they were going well, I'm not going to say anything.
I don't want to lose my job. I don't want to be called these terrible names. And so the majority end up being silenced and we have this tyranny of the minority. And I think virtual makes this worse. it's much easier, anonymously in a town hall, and this happened to me repeatedly to call someone a horrible name and the comments than it would be if we were in person in a room where you might in a diplomatic way, say I'm concerned about the stance you've taken on schools.
Can you help me understand a little better. Rather than calling me, a racist clan member. And then if I reach out to try to have a conversation, no answer, because the point is demonization, not conversation. unfortunately keeping us all virtual exacerbated an issue I think that was already there.
Dan: Everything you're saying is resonating with me. And the interesting thing that you said is you were talking about how we're split 50, 50. It's interesting. If you look at the data, we're split 25, 25 50, and it's those 50 in the middle that are unaligned with either fringe that get caught in the crossfire and can't get their opinions out. And now of course, just to expound on your point, we have all this technology that allows us to run our mouths with no repercussions. So of course it's going to get worse.
I think that's correct. And I could go issue after issue. I think gun control is an issue, obviously very polarized. I think reproductive healthcare, very polarized. I think kids in vaccination is, you're demonized. If you say, as my husband has that, we're not gonna get our five and seven year old vaccinated, at least not now in the near term. And yet 70% of Americans agree with us. it's like 30, 30, 3% of five to 11 year olds. I believe that was the latest data I saw have been vaccinated. So we're in the vast majority, but you would think that we were in this like psychotic minority, only like a crazy person who wanted their child to die would say such a thing or do such a thing.
There's one other topic I really want to touch on because I feel like this is something, you know well. And it's around sports and children in sports. So you did the whole thing from a very young age, became a world-class gymnast and suffered deeply during your time, in addition to having amazing triumphs as well.
Arjun: I'm curious, what's your thinking now on the level of competitiveness of sports that children should be exposed to as they're going through school. Do you have thoughts on that?
Jennifer: I do. I have a lot of thoughts. look, I would never, I'm grateful for my experience. I'm grateful for the life that I've had up until this point and expect to have a lot more, but I trained in a very cruel and abusive environment. And despite what USA gymnastics wants to claim, it has not changed considerably.
it's a very psychologically, emotionally, physically abusive coaching culture. And there is sexual abuse that does occur within that. they tried to dismiss me and my book as, oh, that was the eighties everything's changed, but you know what the Nassar case brought to the fore is that it hasn't changed.
this is a hard one, I believe in the value of sports and all that they are supposed to bring to a child. There's so many great life lessons: Continuing to pursue your dreams through adversity, overcoming adversity. I think learning that just because you can't do something now, it doesn't mean you won't be able to do it later.
Jennifer: Healthy minds, healthy bodies team or all that stuff is amazing. and so like my seven year old loves sports. He's at soccer camp right now. He would play all day if he could. And I think that's amazing. so I have no issue with kids participating in sport. What I tell people, parents is just know what the coach's philosophy is.
Watch your kid. If your kid is talented enough to make a state championship or a national team or more power to that child, but pay attention to what's happening, make sure that the coach cares about the whole child. if your child is suffering, you will know it if you're paying attention.make sure they're not being forced to train on broken bones.
They're not being called names. They're not being, emotionally abused. I would never keep my kid out of sport. I also think this idea that how many kids are actually that good, that they're going to make a national team or, it's just, don't worry about it. Let your kid have fun. And then if they happen to be really good, you make a decision as a family.
I think I was just reading an article over the weekend. Michael Phelps and Simone Biles both said they don't want their kids participating in sports, in a really serious fashion. I agree. I do agree to some extent. I just think for the most part, that's not going to happen anyway. And we all delude ourselves.
Like people have no idea how much we actually trained and like what a small percentage of athletes that you know, are able to even contemplate making a national team. So cross that bridge when you come to it. The reason I think that's a fraught decision that should be debated is I just think childhood is a time to be a child.
We all have time to be very serious and work our butts off as adults. And for me, I was training 10 hours a day in the summer. Like I had no childhood, I don't really remember anything, but being in the gym and I loved it and loved it. And until it got really bad and ugly, and I had very severe injuries that I was training on, I had an eating disorder.
of course I don't want that for my child. Of course I don't. Do I want all the good parts that I experienced up until I was 15? Sure. If she wants to do. Absolutely. do I want her to train on a broken ankle for three years? No, I do not. Do I want her to feel the pressure of her entire family, moving for her and therefore, quitting the sport is not an option because your entire family sacrificed for you?
Jennifer: No, I don't want my child to feel that and I would not put my child in that position. So it's a, it's not a yes or no answer, I guess it's more of a nuanced take on it, but I think sports are amazing. And I think, all kids should participate and learn to move their body and participate in a healthy lifestyle.
I wish I had participated in a team sport. I think the value of that is, and the life lessons from that are amazing. I did not, it was an individual sport,
Arjun: I saw that quote from you that even though it's the all around team gymnastics, there is no team you're all vying for the attention of that coach and that precious spot. you are, you're trying to make, even in the team competition, you're trying to make the team. So you're competing with your quote unquote friends not to say that they're not your friends because you're in a unique position, but you're also competitors. and you know what, at the end of the day, you're out there alone, you're on the balance beam by yourself in a huge stadium. And it all comes down to you. think about Simone Biles at this last Olympics, right? When she did not, when she said, I'm not going to vault, for those that don't remember, she got the twisties, which means you have no idea where you are in the air, which is very dangerous in gymnastics. And she said, I'm not going to compete.
Jennifer: The criticism was all, she let her team down. She let everyone down. So this individual performer led everyone down at all, came down to her. Now her team didn't feel that way. they understood how dangerous it was. It's a lot of pressure on the individual, I commend her for doing it. I think she's very brave.
I think put your kids in sports and let them drive where it goes until it seems harmful, then you have to protect them as a parent.
Arjun: That's beautiful. I also liked the bit about saying that the reality is most of our kids are not going to get to that level. And so worrying about it now and getting like the best coaches for this and this...
Jennifer: silly. The number of, parents I talked to who think, I don't know, people just don't really understand what it takes and the kind of level of training and the difference between even like competing at the state level and competing at the national level. Like you are so many steps away from that. Like just don't worry about it. Or from a college scholarship, like just you'll know when you're getting closer,
Arjun: BothDan and I both worked with this woman named Colleen, who was on the US national hockey team,she's an amazing person. they won the gold medal and there's a street named after her, in her town, which was really cool. And Colleen told me how much she practiced. And she said from age four or five, she went to the ice rink every day, seven days a week till I think she was like 19, that's it! That's all she did was skate. I'm like, oh my God, I can't even imagine what kind of life that was.
Jennifer: That's what it took. Yeah. And the schools I attended it's cause they let me out early to train, like every decision revolves around it. I left school at one o'clock every day I went to the gym by one 30, I trained till 7 30, 8 o'clock at night. your entire life revolves around it and that's from about 10 years old.
I moved away from home when I was 14. I lived with a coach. The level of commitment required. It's unfathomable and that's what I struggle with for a kid, because I just think there's so much time for us to have the weight of the world on our shoulders as adults. I don't, why should a kid have that?
Jennifer: You can learn discipline and all these other things, from competing at a more recreational and fun level, I think.
Arjun: I like it. Dan, I'll give you the last question. I've been hogging it for a little bit.
There's only one other question I would ask. and this might fall out of context, but I'll ask it cause I promised you a little nudgy question anyway, which is, one of the things that, spark one of, one of your actions outside of what you said that sparked controversy was appearing on Laura Ingraham show and, As I was again, as I was looking over your bio, that was something that jumped out at me.
Dan: Cause Laura Ingraham is somebody really court's divisiveness in a way, her program is very much geared towards either hardening your opinion if you already think this way or totally pissing you off, if you don't. And I guess when you look back on that, do you have any regrets about going on that?
Jennifer: No, I don't. I was, I'm not a person that does things, Willy nilly. I am thoughtful. I am decisive and I decided fairly quickly, but I think about the pros and cons. I, I will say I don't watch her show. I hadn't watched it ever before I went on, I was part of a group of open schools, moms across the country.
We had been trying to get our voices heard, through quote unquote mainstream news outlets. We had approached the New York Times. We'd approached CNN. No one would have us, no one would represent the view of parents. And that was part of this kind of illusion of consensus, right? We're not going to let folks talk or have the mic that hold a different view, even if it's backed by data.
And so when she had reached out to me, because the show reached out to me, I called my open schools moms. I was like, what do y'all think this could be ugly? cause I knew what she represented, even though I hadn't watched the show and we debated it and we said, just got a large audience. Do it. If you believe that you can say what you believe without being trapped into an answer that you don't stand by, which I believed I could I'm well media trained, I can stick to my talking points, then do it because it's a platform.
And quite frankly, I have to say Fox has been the only one that has represented parents, voices that has represented some of these doctors that I talked about earlier. they've been ahead of the curve on this. So I'm sorry you disagree with them on a lot of other stuff they've been right here.
And I, I also would say one of the things, because since that Laura Ingraham, which was like the nail in my coffin in a sense at work. Because it's like talking to this person meant that I espoused all of her views, which I think is a really silly view to hold since then, I've gone on a couple more times.
I went back on her show after I quit and I, have been on, I was on Tucker Carlson, I think one time. The first thing I'll say about Tucker Carlson is he has the largest viewership of Democrats, 25 to 54 of any cable news show. So it is not alt-right loons watching the show. And I would hazard a guess that they're not all doing like opposition research, but some of them actually are interested in what he has to say.
But part of my point is we have to all come out of our corners and talk to each other. I can disagree with Laura Ingraham on X, but talk to her about Y and have a good conversation. I'm happy to have a conversation with her, where I disagree on everything. And I guess at the end of the day, I don't regret it because I look back at what I said and I stand by all of it.
there is nothing I said that I would take back. So who cares? What she thinks.
unbiased_untitled-recording_arjun_moorthy-pd8a9jztt_2022-jun-06-1705pm-utc-riverside: Very cool. Jennifer, that was awesome.
Jennifer: Was that the hard question Dan, that you had for me, that was okay.
Dan: That that was the hard question. And you know what I say this all the time, I say this all the time when I record, and finally I can say it to somebody who knows what I'm talking about, but you absolutely nailed the dismount on that one.
Jennifer: thanks. Yeah. I've been asked that one.
Dan: That was
Jennifer: got, I got I, but it works as a pun to, yeah, I don't have a problem answering that, that And again, it's interesting. I, if I get, add one, one point, several of the doctors that I've talked to and gotten to know made a point of going on some of the more conservative outlets, because they feel like they have greater impact in terms of engaging folks that might be less inclined to get vaccinated.
And they feel like they've made a bigger difference going into those outlets and convincing, and they get emails, et cetera, convincing someone who wasn't going to get vaccinated. And so I just, we've lost the script. we've lost the plot. If we think that talking to people who disagree with us means we agree with them and that there's not value in that, that is the conversation that needs to happen.
And so I stand by it and I thank you for having me on. And I think you're trying to further that same idea, right? Talk to people that maybe don't always agree with each
Arjun: Yeah. And by the way, as an aside, my bigger worry is now. trust in science and public health, and so much as lower than it was two years ago, that when the next thing comes around, that's going to be much worse than COVID. I worry how we're actually going to react as a society when we really need to come together and do something, because we didn't do a great job at this time.
And I feel like we lost a lot of people along the way. They're like, you know what? Those CDC guys are quacks and that's not a good place to be because they're generally good. They're not always perfect. They're generally good. And if we have half the country thinking they're quacks, that's going to be a bad future for
Jennifer: Yeah, it could end up more than half. And one of the impacts that's already being seen as people are actually becoming anti-vaxxers for the sort of standard childhood vaccinations that play for many years, then now they don't trust anything. that's a problem.
Arjun: Yeah. It's it's, and there's a whole aside, but I think it, it really starts with, do you believe the public is intelligent and capable of reaching good decisions or do you think they're dumb and need to be spoonfed and answer? And if you go with approach number two, which is what a lot of times you'll see, you'll end up losing their trust in the long run for sure. If you go with the approach, number one, you won't win everyone. There will always be 10 to 20% who call you names or whatever, who cares? You'll win the 80 and that's democracy when
Jennifer: people like adults. Treat people like adults. And I, one of the things I keep talking about on Twitter is, we are yelled at now for not trusting what public health authorities say, but I have good reason not to. They close the playgrounds in my city for eight months. Everybody thinks that's ludicrous. my schools were closed for 18 months. Everybody is starting to see that was not the right decision. Surfaces and clean, bleaching, your groceries went on for far, all these things with no recognition that they were wrong. I think simple recognition that we made a mistake, we were doing the best we could, but now we're pivoting. And now we're recommending this would go a long way in trust. So my perspective is I'm not stupid for not trusting you. You've been untrustworthy.
Arjun: that's right. That's right. incidentally, one public official that has admitted to make a mistake recently. not in health is Janet Yellen when she said I screwed up and I, I didn't think the, stimulus package would have caused this kind of inflation. So just as a, it's a rare example of a very high profile person saying I did it wrong.
You know, who else did it over the weekend? Not a public official, but he's running for office in California. Michael Shellenberger who is running for governor has an independent. he, over the weekend tweeted out that he renounced his early support of lockdowns. He sees now that it was a mistake, he acknowledged that he was wrong, and that it caused more harm than good, which, to me, someone running for office willing to say I was wrong is to me, that's vote.
I can't vote in California now, but I would vote for him.
Arjun: he's an interesting character in Denton. I've talked about it. we had mark Cuban on the show recently and one of Mark's, real hopes is that we get rid of political parties and he thinks it's ruining the nation. And so we talked about, is it really possible for independence to run? And so Michael is now potentially this example.
and he seems to be gaining a following. I don't know how much of it is just Twitter versus outside Twitter. I hope it's more broad because I think it's platforms interesting, but, it'll be interesting to see if we can get more independence running in the country and,
unbiased_untitled-recording_arjun_moorthy-pd8a9jztt_2022-jun-06-1705pm-utc-riverside: know, there's
Jennifer: it's more of viable in some states than others. Like I think an independent candidate here in Colorado, we're 40% of the population is registered as unaffiliated is viable. I think in California, it's tough. Michael, I think would acknowledge that he is a long shot. it votes tomorrow, so we'll know, but, he would acknowledge it, but I still think there's value in it regardless. I think the ideas he's putting forth are really important. I think, just having an independent candidate in California, that's getting attention is important. It could build slowly over time. So I support his candidacy,
Arjun: Nice. and just another side, Dan, and I've been studying this stuff on how we get,fix our politics as we spend a bunch of time on that, the next guest we're having this woman named Katherine Gehl. who's incredible. She's worked with Michael Porter at Harvard to come up with this thing called a final five voting, which is a mix of open primaries and rank choice voting.
so we're going to get into this because going to do it in a yeah. They're going to do it in Alaska and all. And the hypothesisis this is the thing that finally breaks silly gridlock. And it allowed Murkowski to be much more vocal about her opposition to Trump because she doesn't face only Republicans, the primaries, she faces everyone.
And so if that allows people to speak their minds more freely and not feel beholden to this fringe that shows up for the primaries. Wow. What a different political system we have.
So really hoping that this could be an interesting thing.
Dan: Yeah, that is
no, it's interesting. I think there's a few things ranked choice voting that what you just described you could, are you, did you say it was mark Cuban's view that no party was that because you could also argue, which we don't seem to be able to get past, but most of European countries there's five or six viable parties like that, either non or more, but the two is just like the worst possible scenario, right?
Arjun: We had this guy named Lee Druckman who wrote this book called breaking the two-party doom loop. he's quite a famous political scientist. And so he talks about why we have this and it's terrible. And we really are talk about outlier. That's us two parties. What are the outlier? Nobody a democracy has this other than, Canada loosely is three and maybe the UK a little bit, but everyone else is way more,
Jennifer: Yeah, it does just seem, it was tenable 10 years ago, but you could also, 20 years ago you could be a pro-life Democrat or you could be a pro- choice Republican, like you, it wasn't orthodoxical, right? Like now you have to at least pretend to hold the most extreme views of the five or 10 or 20% in the party or you're like house did it, it just, it doesn't, it's not just productive.
Arjun: That's why I'm hoping that, you know what Katherine's gunning for, what mark Cuban saying, and granted, these are just, small in the grand scheme of our massive political system, but we just need some wins to show that this works in some places, independence can win, open primaries, can work ranked choice board and can bring more moderates.
And we see enough of those examples. And then the United States, like any democracy, it starts slow. And then when it finds,
Jennifer: yeah. Yeah.I also think we've learned, sorry, now I'm going on. We can change on a dime if something prompts it, look, we all went to living at home for a year for, and
know,I'm not saying that was a good thing, but like rapid change is possible when the circumstances created and further it. And I just, there's something in this idea that I think 75% of people are actually fairly closely aligned, but too afraid to say anything. What if they weren't.
Arjun: yeah. That's it. Yeah. That's what we're trying to do at Unbiased, what we're trying to do at The Factual. We do these polls every day and it is really startling, the moderate sort of view. And I'm telling you, we poll her, we're like, are you liberal, conservative? Where are you? And we get the whole mix and yet on views on issues so much more nuanced, so much more nuanced than what somehow if we can get this up and more people can see it, maybe
Jennifer: I think so. That's I am in that. I'm on that mission with you my own little voice.
Arjun: Oh, fabulous. Thank you so much.