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Leena Nair, CEO, Chanel

The long list of Indian origin executives heading global operations of multinational companies is getting longer. Leena Nair, who has adorned this list in top positions in the past, is now set to move to the topmost position of a global fashion house soon. She is the second woman of Indian origin after Pepsico’s former chief Indra Nooyi to take over as global CEO of a company.

Ms Nair, the chief human resources officer (CHRO) of Unilever since 2016, has been named the CEO of French luxury fashion house Chanel. The 52-year-old, who will be taking over her new responsibility later in January and based out of London, is expected to make Chanel a more inclusive and diversified company.  

The consumer goods veteran spent over 30 years at Unilever. She steadily rose through the ranks to become the first woman, first Asian and youngest-ever top executive of the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods company, becoming a member of the Unilever Leadership Executive (ULE).

Born in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, Ms Nair studied electronics and telecommunication engineering at Walchand College in Sangli. She also graduated with a gold medal in MBA in human resources from XLRI, Jamshedpur, in 1992.

Soon after her education, Ms Nair started her career as a management trainee at Unilever in 1992. She gradually moved up the corporate ladder from factory personnel manager of Lipton India and occupied many significant positions across various divisions, such as employee relations manager at Hindustan Unilever (HUL); management development planning manager of HUL; human resources (HR) manager of HUL’s home and personal care (HPC) and general manager of HUL.

She was also appointed as general manager of HPC and foods and was elevated as executive director of HUL and as HR vice-president of HUL for South Asia. Finally, she moved further higher on the global front as the CHRO of Unilever.

She has been widely praised for her people-focused approach to business. And she has played a vital role in developing the human capital of Unilever. “When you look after your people, they will look after the business,” she has often said, stressing on the importance of the well-being of employees.

During her stint as Unilever’s CHRO, she has undertaken many initiatives, like formulating a four-pillar Wellbeing Framework to address the physical, mental, emotional and purposeful well-being of the business conglomerate’s employees in 2014. She has always believed that employees’ well-being is at the heart of any organisation’s success.

A British national, Ms Nair lives with her husband and two sons in London. When she is not busy formulating policies for labour welfare, she likes reading, running and dancing to Bollywood music.

Meanwhile, Chanel’s choice of Ms Nair as its global CEO comes at a time when the designer label is undergoing a rapid internal transformation to grapple with a pandemic-induced slump. The fashion house’s unusual decision to hire an industry outsider is designed to bring more inclusivity and diversity into the company. And Ms Nair, with all her rich experience, is certainly not going to disappoint the global fashion house.

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