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Explained: Who is Leena Nair, Chanel’s new Indian-origin CEO?

French luxury fashion house Chanel has named Leena Nair, who previously served as Unilever’s top HR executive, as its new global CEO. With this, Nair has joined a growing list of Indian-origin executives who have taken up top roles in some of the world’s biggest companies in recent years.

The announcement comes at a time when the designer label is undergoing a rapid internal transformation to grapple with a pandemic-induced slump. The consumer goods veteran spent over 30 years at Unilever, most recently as the chief of human resources and a member of the company’s executive committee.

According to a statement released by Chanel, Nair will be joining the company at the end of January and will be based in London. It added that the new appointments would ensure its “long-term success as a private company”.

Chanel’s unusual decision to hire a fashion industry outsider as its new chief executive is also being seen as part of its growing efforts to show a more inclusive approach.

Chanel’s unusual decision to hire a fashion industry outsider as its new chief executive is also being seen as part of its growing efforts to show a more inclusive approach.

So, who is Leena Nair?

Nair, 52, started her career as a management trainee at Unilever in 1992. She steadily rose through the ranks to become the “first female, first Asian, youngest ever” Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) at Unilever in 2016. She was also a member of the Unilever Leadership Executive (ULE).

She has previously served as a non-executive director of the British government’s business, energy and industrial strategy department.

“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,” Unilever CEO Alan Jope said while announcing her exit.

Born in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, Nair studied electronics and telecommunications engineering at Walchand College in Sangli. She did her MBA in Human Resources from XLRI, Jamshedpur, in 1992, where she was awarded a gold medal. Soon after graduating she worked at three different factories in Kolkata, Ambattur, Tamil Nadu and Taloja, Maharashtra.

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British national Nair, who featured in Fortune magazine’s 2021 list of most powerful women, is widely praised for her people-focused approach to business. “When you look after your people, they will look after the business,” she told the magazine.

Nair is the second woman of Indian origin after Pepsico’s former chief Indra Nooyi — who is also coincidentally her mentor — to take over as global CEO of a company.

 



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