Levi Strauss & Co.’s new CEO-to-be, Michelle Gass, may not be a denim expert but she has a noteworthy background that spans chemicals to coffee. And her recent actions as the CEO of Kohl’s to promote diversity and inclusion give some indication that she will continue Levi’s track record of taking a liberal stance on political and social issues.
Born and raised in Maine, Gass earned a B.S. in chemical engineering from Worchester Polytechnic Institute in Worchester, Mass. in 1990 and began her career at Procter & Gamble where she worked until 1996 developing products including new flavors of children’s toothpaste. In 1996 she relocated to Seattle and joined the marketing department of Starbucks where she continually climbed the corporate ladder for nearly 17 years and earned an MBA from the University of Washington in 1999.
Her achievements at Starbucks included making the Frappuccino enormously popular, growing the Seattle’s Best brand (she served as its president from 2009 to 2011) and serving as company president of Starbucks EMEA–Europe, Middle East and Africa, a job that made her a resident of London for almost two years.
She has also served on the board of directors of PepsiCo, Cigna and Ann Inc., the parent company of Ann Taylor and Loft.
Gass joined Kohl’s in June 2013 as chief merchandising and customer officer and became CEO in May 2018. A year later, she signed the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion pledge.
On June 1, 2020, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Gass spoke out about discrimination. “As our country faces another crisis fueled by racism and discrimination, I hope that we again can take these lessons, face them head-on and work towards more resolutions and progress,” she said in a video message to Kohl’s associates. “These past few months have highlighted just how interconnected we all are as a global community. Our actions, our perceptions, our values and the way we conduct ourselves affect everyone around us. We can only solve these large, pervasive issues if we work together and commit to doing what’s right. And what is right is having no tolerance for hateful or discriminatory behaviors in any place where we conduct our business.”
Two weeks later, she had a similar message for Kohl’s customers. “These horrific events should serve as a wake-up call for every institution to look within to determine how they can be a catalyst for change,” she said. “As a large company–and one that serves millions of families from diverse backgrounds–Kohl’s acknowledges systemic injustices in the country and can commit to actions and behaviors that will make our company, stores and the world a better place.”
The same year she launched a diversity and inclusion strategy focusing on Kohl’s employees, customers and communities and created the role of diversity and inclusion officer, now held by Michelle Banks, in May 2021.
As part of its diversity and inclusion program, Kohl’s now has eight business resource groups (BRGs) including the Hispanic and Latino BRG, the Black Professionals BRG, the Asian Pacific BRG, the Women’s BRG, the Veterans and Military BRG, the Diverse Abilities BRG, the Pride BRG and Young Professionals BRG. It has also pledged to donate $20 million to diverse communities from 2022 to 2025, specifically, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities, veterans and active military members and women.
“We have continued to take meaningful steps to ensure Kohl’s leaves a smaller environmental footprint on the planet while also making a positive difference in the lives of families nationwide, including our Kohl’s associates, our valued customers and the community partners we are honored to serve,” Gass wrote in the company’s 2021 ESG report. “We remain committed to the highest standards of integrity and performance and are dedicated to fostering a best-in-class workplace that celebrates transparency, opportunity and appreciation.”
Unlike current Levi Strauss & Co. CEO Chip Bergh who has taken on hot button political issues such as gun control and voter suppression, Gass’ personal politics are not as obvious (she was one of 10 of the 32 female CEOs of S&P 500 companies who did not make any political contributions in 2019-2020, according to Federal Election Commission filings) but it is known that she earned $12.9 million last year and her net worth has been estimated at $60 million.
However, assumedly Bergh, who is known for his outspokenness, would not support her if their values did not align. “One of my biggest legacies at LS&Co. will be my successor, passing the baton to someone who will take the company to the next level. I am thrilled not just about Michelle being my successor, but also about having the chance to work closely together during the transition,” Bergh said when the news of the transition was announced on Tuesday. “I have known Michelle for a decade, and she has many of the qualities we value in our leaders: she is humble, approachable, transparent and driven by purpose and values.”
Outspokenness, however, is what led Jennifer Sey to leave the company. The former president of Levi’s resigned earlier this year after she publicly said schools should stay open during the pandemic. “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,” she wrote in a blog post on commonsense.com.
“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,” she added in the post.
Gass will start her new role as president of Levi Strauss & Co., reporting to Bergh, on Jan. 2 and is planned to succeed him as CEO 18 months after. She will also join the company’s board of directors upon her arrival.