As the chief AI officer at Levi Strauss & Co, Katia Walsh knows firsthand the benefits that technology can have on a company.
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic’s massive disruption to the denim supply chain, the company was able to emerge stronger than ever, thanks in part to its heavy technological focus. Embracing new technology helped the company quickly build out e-commerce and omnichannel capabilities like curbside pickup, BOPIS, and shipping directly from stores that helped it bounce back from an initial hit.
And through the power of data, it was able to avoid discounting, which Walsh said resulted in one of the healthiest margins the company has seen.
To maximize these efforts, Levi’s introduced an industry-leading program to bring AI education to employees across departments. Its in-house Machine Learning Bootcamp is an eight-week, fully paid program that aims to promote more agile thinking and increase the use of technology and data throughout the organization.
“Our mission at Levi’s is to democratize fashion,” said Walsh during VentureBeat’s Transform 2021 virtual conference. “And as part of that, we want to democratize machine learning. We wanted to open the opportunity to everyone—not just people in corporate, but people in stores and distribution centers as well.”
The company has a long history of investing in its employees, as Levi Strauss himself personally funded scholarships for women at the University of California, Berkeley back in the 19th century when women weren’t even allowed to vote, she added.
“We are living the values of this company in terms of investing in our people, giving them the skills they need and benefiting from the culture change that they will drive through the organization,” she said.
The program’s first cohort included 40 employees—63 percent of whom are female—from 14 locations around the world. Now considered certified machine learning practitioners, some are returning to their original function, while others will become the newest members of the company’s strategy and AI team. Walsh shared anecdotes of early success, including a designer who is now able to apply the skills learned to digitally create garments, and a store manager who can use data and machine learning to predict what to stock in the store.
“It’s this combination of knowing the business and the company, and having the data skills that makes them such a valuable asset,” she said.
Graduates receive ongoing support through weekly meetings with bootcamp instructors and learn how to build models, write scripts and complete work tasks using machine learning. They also meet once a month as a group to share case studies, and will be paired with a strategy and AI team member later this year for continued mentorship.
The company plans to scale its efforts with another bootcamp that’s “even bigger.” This underscores Levi’s long-term vision—not just for accelerating technological advancements, but for creating a more sustainable future, as Walsh believes AI can “save fashion.”
“Fashion has been one of the biggest offenders when it comes to climate change,” she said. “AI can save fashion because it can deliver us the sustainability, the creativity and the profitability that a company like ours aspires to have.”