Leena Nair joins an expanding tribe of global CEOs with Indian roots
The New year day of 2022 will be special for the London-based Indian businesswoman Leena Nair, who will take over as global CEO of “Chanel” , arguably the world’s best brand of fashion products, known for class and prestige.
In the process Leena will be stepping down as Chief Human Resources Officer at Unilever, where she was the first woman, first Asian and youngest ever person to hold the role, overseeing 150,000+ employees.
Founded in 1910 as a small millinery business in Paris, Chanel has evolved into one of the recognisable names in fashion. Named after couturière Coco Chanel, the company is owned by Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, the grandsons of Chanel’s early business partner Pierre, and remains a tightly controlled family business. But now the duo have handed over the day-to-day operations to a rare outsider, 52 year old Leena, who is a rank outsider.
Her appointment has been praised as a landmark for diversity within the industry and marks the latest step in a remarkable career for Leena, an engineering graduate who worked her way up the ranks of Unilever after starting her career in the company’s factories. She has accrued an impressive 30 years of extensive experience at Unilever and climbed her way to the top. She started with the company as a management trainee in 1992 and went on to become one of the most powerful people behind the brand’s success.
Nair has been named as one of Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women in 2021 and is an XLRI Jamshedpur alumni. She takes a people-focused approach to her leadership role, and that has proven to be wildly successful. Incidentally, Leena has recently accepted the Great British Businesswoman Role Model of the Year award.
Leena is already being looked up to by the Indian community and is being hailed as a true trailblazer for those with Indian heritage, as well as for women, everywhere. She has proven that hard work and sheer determination truly can pay off and that there is no limit to success for women of any age or ethnicity who are willing to work towards their goals.
Leena has no experience in the fashion industry, but that is said to be her biggest asset – filling the shoes with an outsider’s perspective and to give the company a fresh direction.
In fact, Chanel didn’t take this change lightly. There was a lot of screening, research, and scrutiny that went into filling the CEO position. Chanel went more than five years without having an appointed global CEO in place, and Nair will be taking over the position that was previously left open by Maureen Chiquet. When Maureen left her 9-year position with the brand, co-owner Alain Wertheimer took on the honorary position.
Without a background in fashion, Leena will rely on her ability to be a powerful, influential leader and will tap into the people-focused approach that has led to her current level of success. She will single-handedly lead one of the most predominant, highly esteemed fashion label brands in the world.
Relying on her extensive human resources experience and tapping into her history of ensuring workplace attitudes and consumer relations remain the focus towards successful corporate growth, Nair is ready to tackle her new position.
Leena was born in a small town in Kolhapur, Maharashtra and is the daughter of late industrialist Ram Menon and attended Holy Cross Convent High School.
She later became a student of The New College Kolhapur before earning a degree in electronic engineering at Walchand College of Engineering in Sangli – where she found she had a ‘flair for management’.
‘One of the best pieces of advice I ever had was before my career even began, from my college professor who sat me down and said, ‘You know what, you’re going to make a pretty lousy engineer. But I think you have a flair for management. You like being with people’, she wrote on Instagram.
After deciding against becoming an engineer, Leena began studying for a masters at the Xavier School of Management in Jamshedpur where she did an MBA in HR.
After graduating in 1992, she began work as at Unilever as a management trainee where she became the first woman to take a role working in factories around India for the company.
When Leena joined programme, the majority of the workforce was male – but the businesswoman says her time studying a male-dominated degree meant she was well-equipped to deal with the gender divide.
‘It was 3,000 boys and 18 girls in engineering college and the four years there toughened me up, made me thick skinned and I learnt how to claw my way through a largely male dominated space’, she told the Khaleej Times.
When she began working at Hindustan Unilever more than two decades ago, the factories didn’t even have women’s toilets and after ensuring some were built for her – they were jokingly dubbed ‘Leena’s Loos’.
‘I learned so many lessons, about the factory and production, the shop-floor ecosystem, the importance of resilience. It’s made me who I am’, she told Time magazine.
A year after graduating the trainee program, Leena became the factory personnel manager of the Lipton factory in Kolkata, where she spent three years.
Leena then became Employee Relations Manager of the company, headquartered in Mumbai and continued to rise up the ranks, becoming the general HR manager in ten years.
In 2016, by which time the businesswoman had spent over twenty years climbing the career ladder at the company, she was promoted to Chief Human Resources Officer of Unilever in London.
She was the first female, first Asian and youngest ever CHRO of the company and had overall responsibility for the 160,000 workforce operating over 190 countries.
Leena, who has two children with husband Kumar, was announced as Chanel’s chief executive last week, becoming a become a rare outsider at the helm of the tightly controlled family fashion house.
‘I am humbled and honoured to be appointed the Global Chief Executive Officer of Chanel, an iconic and admired company’, she wrote on social media.
‘I am so inspired by what Chanel stands for. It is a company that believes in the freedom of creation, in cultivating human potential and in acting to have a positive impact in the world.’