For Katia Walsh, chief AI officer at Levi Strauss & Co, data and technology have been at the forefront for her entire career. “People are the most important part of artificial intelligence,” Walsh said at VentureBeat’s Transform 2021 in a conversation with Mike Hendrickson, vice president of technology and developer products at Skillsoft.

The iconic denim jeans from Levi’s, which was founded 167 years ago in San Francisco, aren’t the only notable thing about the clothing company. Walsh says Levi’s has always used cutting-edge technology, a “natural progression” for its brand.

Levi’s deploys AI to build better relationships with its customers and optimize its profit margins. While most companies bring in engineers to scale up machine learning operations, Hendrickson said, Levi’s deviates from the norm by teaching its existing workforce how to work with data and new technology through a boot camp.

Levi’s workers come into their AI training with no background in data and machine learning and come out with new technological skills. Investing in those qualities helps Levi’s expand its imprint on the fashion world and ultimately, its profitability. It also serves the company’s mission to “democratize fashion” and in turn “democratize machine learning,” Walsh said.

All 43 people in the first AI boot camp cohort have graduated from the program and have gained valuable hard skills that would ordinarily not be offered at a retail chain. Levi’s also created a class for people who had basic or outdated skills in data and analytics and helped them update their experience.

In 2020, Levi’s launched a loyalty program based on its machine learning models to personalize the brand experience for its fans. So far, Walsh said, the program has increased the amount of time customers engage with the company.

AI has also helped Levi’s manage its stores, regulate inventory, and optimize pricing. One employee is already using neural networks to design images on traditional products; another has used machine learning to predict stock for its popular outlet stores.

Culture change did not come easy. Walsh said the loyalty program required buy-in from managers across all of Levi’s hierarchies to let go of employees for eight weeks and encourage them on their machine learning journey.

Creating the “upskilling” environment helped Walsh and her team figure out how quickly they could pivot when faced with new challenges. It has also helped them figure out an answer to a contemporary issue: sustainability.

“What we’ve all become inspired by is this notion that AI can save fashion,” Walsh said. “Fashion has not always been the best citizen of our planet. The fashion industry has been one of the biggest offenders when it comes to climate change.”

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