If you had told 10-year-old Leena Nair that one day she would be running a legendary French fashion house, she would have laughed. That's because at the time she was still in India, cycling 24 miles to get to school each day, at a time when girls were constantly told what they could do, regardless of their ambitions. And yet, Nair prevailed, earning a degree in electronics engineering from Walchand College of Engineering, and later her MBA from the Xavier School of Management in Jamshedpur, where she was a gold medalist. But her work—and success—was just beginning.
In 1992 she joined Mumbai, India-based Hindustan Unilever (HUL) as a management trainee and one of the few women employees to opt for a factory role. This position exposed her to many different HUL factories, which were located in the cities of Kolkata, Ambattur, and Taloja. She’s spent the past 30 years at the company, holding a variety of posts, such as the employee relations manager, HR manager, and executive director of HR. In 2016, after three years as head of leadership and organizational development in London, she became the first woman, first Asian, and youngest ever chief human resources officer (CHRO) at HUL. In this role, she was responsible for the company’s 150,000 people across more than 100 countries. Remarkably, over a period of 10 years, starting in 2010, she helped the company achieve a 50/50 gender balance across global leadership.
Nair's rise to the top culminated with the announcement that, as of January 2022, she would serve as the new global CEO of Chanel, the French luxury brand.
Chanel, which has for long been a tightly-controlled family fashion house, chose Nair to be at the helm despite her not having experience in the world of fashion, and coming from the consumer goods industry. It was her global reputation as a visionary leader that led the iconic fashion house to its decision. As such, Nair is currently based in London, where the company regrouped financial and legal operations in 2018.
On top of her new position, Nair is a non-executive member of British Telecom and a member of the Board of the Leverhulme Trust. She was also a non-executive Director on the U.K. government's Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy department. The trailblazing executive has been featured in Time magazine, and in 2021, she was included in the HERoes in Business women role model list.