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Industry Insider: Katia Walsh, Chief Global Strategy and AI Officer at Levi Strauss

We spoke with Katia Walsh, Chief Strategy & Artificial Intelligence Officer at Levi Strauss & Co., about the big trends she’s seeing in AI and Machine learning, how Levi’s is attracting top digital talent and why fostering a positive culture of innovation is critical for today’s retailers.


Katia Walsh:

Hi, I’m Katia Walsh, and I’m responsible for Strategy and Artificial Intelligence at Levi Straus and Company in San Francisco. Digital talent has always been in high demand. It has always been an arms race. I spent my entire career helping companies transform themselves through technology to become customer-centric, and to meet their objectives and vision for the future. This has always been a challenge. It has particularly accelerated with COVID because so many businesses and organizations around the world realize that digital is now part of their core operations, and we could not survive and operate without that. So, it’s even in more demand today.

There are two ways in which we can address that challenge. One, we can of course, hire from outside, and we do that. Every company has to do that. It is particularly helpful to do that in industries like apparel retail that have not been at the forefront of digital innovation until now. But the other way that is equally helpful is to actually look at the internal workforce that knows the industry, knows the company, knows the business, knows everything about how it operates, and can learn the skills so that it can, based on that internal knowledge and based on the new skills, can help that company progress for the future.

So, as an example of how we are solving this challenge around the tracking and retaining digital talent at Levis, there are two dimensions that we work along. One, is of course, we have to look outside at a company like Levi Straus. We have a lot of innovation. We have a lot of technology in our DNA. We literally invented a new category. It’s a company that was one of the first to file for patents in the United States, but it has needed to refresh its skills in technology. So, we do hire from outside, and when we do that, the brand that we have helps tremendously. For a lot of people, the brand means much more than apparel. It is actually a flag for freedom, for democracy. I myself came to Levi from the technology industry because of that brand, and I find that very powerful for when I work with people that we attract from outside.

Another way in which we attract people from outside is to actually help position a company like Levi’s as a fashion tech company. I firmly believe that we are entering this space of fashion tech, just like there has been FinTech. Today, we are entering the space of fashion tech, and Levi’s can lead that, and disrupt the whole industry, and that entices people who want to make a difference, who want to make an impact. On the other side, we also want to make sure that we develop people who have been with the company for a while. We have textile engineers. Textile engineers are still engineers. We also have a lot of other people in different functions, in stores, in distribution centers, in design, who are eager to learn.

So, to address that, we created a whole new digital upscaling portfolio within the company. As part of that, we trained 101 employees in the past year in machine learning. The machine learning bootcamp graduates are people who have been employees in distribution centers, in design, in stores, so they know the company. They have been facing certain problems and pain points for years. They just didn’t have the skills to tackle those problems. We have another employee who had been in design. He developed a neuro network that takes thousands of images from art, and transposes those on iconic Levi’s garments. For example, the Levi’s iconic tracker jacket. So, we now have, thanks to his skills, a Van Gogh Starry Night-inspired tracker jacket. So, next time you buy something from Levis, it may very well be AI-powered.

As a result of this bootcamp, we have been able to retain the vast majority of the people that we have graduated. They’re so engaged. They have now become champions of digital innovation and transformation around the company. Moreover, their managers are also very engaged, and their loyalty has increased over the past year. Because it has worked out so well, both from an upscaling perspective, but also employee loyalty and retention perspective, we are now offering our third class in machine learning, and it’s about to start in a few weeks.

Every company in the world today, in every industry is a digital data and AI company. They may not realize that. They may not act like that, but they will realize that soon. So, digital capabilities, data and artificial intelligence are all around us. They’re part of this interview even, and every company that is progressive, if it hasn’t invested yet, it will have to very soon.