Back in the early 1990s, Leena Nair was a young engineering student from Kolhapur, Maharashtra. Graduating as a gold medalist, she knew she had a bright future ahead when she soon joined British consumer goods giant Unilever.

The only question was – how far would she go?

Nair, now 52, has just become the CEO of French fashion house Chanel. This makes her the second Indian-origin woman to become a global CEO, after PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi.

Chanel will now have 3 women at its helm across the course of its 112-year history.

First was Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel herself – the legendary Parisienne designer or couturière, followed by American businesswoman Maureen Chiquet, who ran operations from 2007 to 2016. Chiquet was credited for much of the brand’s success in that decade, during which it rose to become the ‘single most valuable fashion brand’ in the world.

As Nair prepares for the role ahead, lets take a closer look at her long, fruitful spell with Unilever:

Nair’s Unilever Career

Over three decades from her start, Nair has become a figurehead for women in key business positions. Starting her career as a management trainee at Hindustan Unilever, she happened to be the first woman to step on Unilever’s factory floors.

In those days, Hindustan Unilever’s workforce gender ratio was extremely skewed, with only 2% of its employees identifying as female. Last year, Unilever announced a global shift in management statistics – achieving 50% female representation at the management level.

Much of this has to do with Nair’s career path. She donned several hats as a young executive from 1992-2007 – Factory personnel Manager, Management Development Planning Manager, Employee Relations Manager, and more.

In 2007, she became the Executive HR Director of Hindustan Unilever – the first time a woman held the post in nearly a century. She soon went global as the Senior Vice-President, HR, as well as the Global Head of Diversity in 2013.

Finally, she was appointed as the Chief Human Resources Officer – handling a global workforce of over 160,000 employees.

“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,” said Alan Jope, Unilever CEO.

What Will Nair’s Responsibilities at Chanel Look Like?

For starters, Nair’s new stint as Chanel CEO will begin at the end of January, according to the company. She will continue to live and work from London – presumably at the label’s London headquarters. The office was established at Mayfair in 2017 – one of the city’s most fashionable and affluent neighborhoods.

CEOs often have varying responsibilities. According to Chanel’s press statement, Nair will be tasked with ensuring its “long term success as a private company,” while “champion[ing] a long-term, purpose-driven agenda, matched to a consistently strong record of business outcomes.”

That’s a bunch of business-speak telling us that Nair’s wealth of experience and managerial talent will be put to use – making the brand more successful and dominant in the competitive, cutthroat world of fashion.


A Massive Win For Indian Businesswomen

Naturally, Indians have flocked to social media in support of the decision at Chanel, applauding the choice as a moment of national pride and a major win for women in business and fashion.

Of course, there were more than a few requests for desi discounts:

Leena capped off her announcement by thanking supporters after replying to several comments:

With Nair taking the reins, will the brand move towards more inclusive, less Euro-centric fashion? Only time will tell.

(Image Sources: @leenanair, Unilever PLC)