Women smiling
Tulane University Scholar Sheccid Rodriguez with her host, Levi Strauss and Co. President Michelle Gass.

Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Michelle Gass

Winter 2024 | National

The Jeff Ubben Posse Fellows Program awards five exceptional Posse Scholars $10,000 each and the chance to spend 4-6 weeks during the summer shadowing and learning from a major industry leader. The interview below with Michelle Gass, President of Levi Strauss and Co., was conducted by Posse Scholar Sheccid Rodriguez, now in her junior year at Tulane University, who worked with Michelle Gass as a 2023 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

SHECCID: Tell me about your childhood. What hobbies or interests did you have?

MICHELLE GASS: I was born and raised in a small town in Maine. My upbringing was shaped by strong maternal influences, including my grandmother, my mother and her three sisters. We lived modestly, so I developed a strong work ethic, held multiple part time jobs and was among the first in my family to graduate from college. I was always curious, academically driven and fascinated by math and science. I decided to pursue a degree in engineering and got a great start to my career at Procter & Gamble.

I would love to hear more about these women in your life. How did they shape early ideas of leadership growing up?

They were all very strong women. My grandmother was always the pinnacle of the family. The four sisters also played very strong female leadership roles in their own rights. They all worked and faced unique challenges, which they ultimately overcame.

How do you try to change the status quo?

Over the course of my career, I’ve learned about the importance of experimentation and innovation. Sometimes the biggest ideas are the most unexpected ones. I love to encourage people to think differently, and bring to the table ideas that may appear seemingly impossible on the surface. I was fortunate to work for Starbucks for over sixteen years and be part of a culture that embraced an entrepreneurial spirit. During my time there, we launched many fan favorites that are still on the menu today, such as the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

While you are innovating, it’s also important to pressure test your thinking. I like to bring everybody to the table to debate and discuss ideas and big decisions. I also find that ideas can come from everywhere. Some of the best ideas come directly from the teams in the stores who are interacting with customers every day. And of course, there are many times when a new idea won’t play out as you expected. That is fine, as long as the thinking was sound when you introduced it, and that there is something to learn if it didn’t work. To succeed in today’s world, you can never sit still.

Did motherhood change your leadership in any way or how you approach situations in the workforce?

Absolutely. It reinforces how important maintaining empathy and humility in the workforce is. It’s critical to acknowledge that everybody is at different stages in their own personal journeys.

What is a piece of advice you have received during your career that you find yourself coming back to?

Have leadership courage. That was advice I was given very early on in my career by several mentors at Starbucks. I had the privilege of working with amazing leaders who believed in me and encouraged me to have courage and to trust my instincts, even when it led to the less popular choice.

How do you navigate change when coming into a new group of people and entirely new area of business as a leader?

Be true to your authentic self and your values. Be a constant learner and a good listener. Be humble while you build your confidence in a new situation. When I arrived here at LS&Co., I was excited to learn a lot more about the company, the culture, the values, and the history and heritage of the Levi’s® brand. While I knew Levi’s® from being a business partner in my prior role, I had underappreciated the global reach and strength of the brand. I made it a priority to be out in stores and in our distribution centers to really get to know the business. I am even more convinced today about the tremendous opportunities ahead because of the time I had to deeply immerse in our business.

Is there anything you would tell a younger version of yourself if you had the chance?

I guess I would tell the younger version of myself what I tell my children. Pursue your passions, follow your dreams, be kind, and take care of others, and yourself. Recognize there are going to be some really tough and challenging moments, but you will get through them and be better for it. And with every next chapter of your career, and your life, everything to that point has led you to it, and you are exactly where you are supposed to be.