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Chanel's new CEO Leena Nair has no fashion background: Here's how she got to the top

·3-min read
Photo of Leena Nair smiling at the camera.
Leena Nair has worked in the consumer-goods industry for three decades. (Source: Getty)

French luxury fashion house Chanel has named a new Indian-origin CEO... and she has never worked in the fashion industry.

Leena Nair, a former top Unilever HR executive will be joining the company at the end of January, 2022 and will be based in London.

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The unusual decision to pick someone without industry experience has come at a time when Chanel is undergoing an internal transformation to grapple with a pandemic-induced slump, and is being seen as part of its efforts to display a more inclusive approach in fashion.

As the CEO of Chanel, Nair joins a growing list of Indian-origin executives in top roles in some of the world’s biggest companies and organisations in recent times.

The consumer-goods veteran has worked with Unilever for more than three decades. Most recently she was the chief of human resources and a member of the company’s executive committee.

Chanel hopes for "long-term success as a private company” with Nair's appointment.

How fashion outsider Nair rose to the top

Nair hails from Kolhapur in Maharashtra, India. She did her schooling at Holy Cross Convent and studied electronics engineering at Walchand College of Engineering. She then graduating from the Xavier School of Management (XLRI), Jamshedpur as the Gold Medallist of the 1990-1992 class.

She started her career as a management trainee at Unilever in 1992. 

Photo of Leena Nair, the new CEO of Chanel. (Source: Getty)
Leena Nair is a former top Unilever HR executive. (Source: Getty)

Nair was one of the few female employees who opted for factory roles at Unilever, and was promoted to the position of factory personnel manager of Lipton India Ltd in 1993. 

She then worked with various factories of Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) and gradually rose through the ranks to become the “first female, first Asian, youngest ever” chief human resources officer (CHRO) at Unilever in 2016. 

As CHRO, her aim was "to build an inclusive environment where all members of the diverse society can contribute and succeed in equal measure", she said in an interview. 

Nair was also a member of the Unilever Leadership Executive (ULE).

Previously, she served as a non-executive director of the British government’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department.

While announcing her exit, Unilever CEO Alan Jope said: “Leena has been a pioneer throughout her career at Unilever, but no more so than in her role as CHRO, where she has been a driving force on our equity, diversity and inclusion agenda, on the transformation of our leadership development, and on our preparedness for the future of work.”

Nair, who is a British national, was featured in Fortune magazine’s 2021 list of most powerful women, and has received great praise for her people-focused approach to business. 

After Pepsico’s former chief, Indra Nooyi, Nair is the second woman of Indian origin to take over as global CEO of a company.

Leena is married to businesman Kumar Nair. The couple have two sons.

Following her appointment as CEO of Chanel, Leena tweeted: "I am humbled and honoured to be appointed the Global Chief Executive Officer of Chanel, an iconic and admired company."

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