Runner, yoga-doer, mother and wife, serial glass-ceiling breaker Leena Nair is now the first ever woman of Indian origin to be leading Chanel, the brand that once changed the way women all over the world dressed. She is also the second ever Woman of Indian Origin (WIO) to take over as global CEO after Indira Nooyi (Pepsico). She will assume her position at the end of January 2022.
Shattering barriers isn’t new to Nair’s resume though. Her last position as Chief Head of Human Resources at Unilever broke several of the company’s own internal records: She was the first female, first Asian, youngest ever CHRO of Unilever and a member of the Unilever Leadership Executive (ULE), which is responsible for delivering Unilever’s business and financial performance. She had been with Unilever for 30 years, where she was the first woman to work on the factory floor. When she joined, only 2% of Hindustan Unilever’s employees were women, though the gender-balance situation has changed a lot during her tenure.
Back when she was travelling in small-town India where many of HUL’s factories are located, she would stay at shady hotels and use the men’s toilets because there were no women’s toilets available. Instead of holding her back, these experiences fuelled her leadership: she is a champion of the human touch in leadership, equal opportunity as well as work-life balance in the workplace. Among her many, many initiatives are Career by Choice, a project which allows women to rejoin the workforce after long career breaks. Nair also introduced Career Break, a project that allows employees to take a 5-year sabbatical in their careers.
The values that powered her management of 96 trade unions are what she’d been honing all the way from her early days in Unilever as she made her way to the top. She did all this in a boys’ club. Now, she’s heading Chanel while being an industry outsider. While Chanel’s previous CEO, Maureen Chiquet was from the world of fashion, Nair is an engineer by training.
With her remarkable work ethic, feminist values and her people-centric leadership style, Nair is the best person Chanel could have chosen to be their CEO to lead their company into the Future of Work.