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Chanel’s Leena Nair joins an expanding tribe of global CEOs with Indian roots

Leena Nair, the new CEO of Chanel.

Leena Nair, the new CEO of Chanel.

There’s yet another person of Indian origin heading a global corporation.

Leena Nair will be the new CEO for Chanel, the French luxury house announced in a press release yesterday (Dec. 14). She will take over from Alain Wertheimer, who will now be global chairman, in January. In her last stint, Nair was head of human resources at consumer goods giant Unilever in London.

Her new role comes on the heels of recent high-profile appointments of people of Indian origin at global companies. After Jack Dorsey stepped down as CEO of Twitter on Nov. 29, he appointed Parag Agrawal, an Indian Institute of Technology Bombay graduate, to take his place. Similarly, Barclays appointed CS Venkatakrishnan as its CEO on Nov. 1 after Jes Staley stepped down unexpectedly.

Over the past decade, global conglomerates like PepsiCo, financial institutions like Mastercard, and Silicon Valley giants like Google and Microsoft have inducted Indian-origin talent into their top management.

Nair’s new association with Chanel continues that trend.

Who is Leena Nair?

Nair, now 52, was born in Kolhapur, a small town in the western state of Maharashtra. In 1990, she graduated in electronics and telecommunications engineering from the Walchand College of Engineering in the neighbouring Sangli district.

She then went to XLRI Jamshedpur for her MBA in human resources. Nair’s journey is also remarkable because she, unlike most CEOs of Indian origin, does not have an elite IIT pedigree.

After completing her MBA in 1992, she joined Hindustan Unilever, the Indian subsidiary of the British consumer goods company. In nearly 30 years of working with the company, she rose through the ranks from being a management trainee to the chief human resources officer at Unilever.

She now lives in the UK and is a citizen of that country.

Following her last promotion, Nair became the “first female, first Asian, youngest ever CHRO of Unilever, and member of the Unilever Leadership Executive, which is responsible for delivering Unilever’s business and financial performance,” according to her LinkedIn profile.

Nair has been vocal about the struggles she faced as a woman blazing a trail in a male-dominated corporate world.

Female CEOs and their challenges

In 2012, Nair spoke to Khaleej Times about learning how to “claw” her way up. It was something she learnt going to an engineering college. “It was 3,000 boys and 18 girls in engineering college and the four years there toughened me up, made me thick-skinned and I learnt how to claw my way through a largely male-dominated space.”

Things may have changed now, with women like Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo and Marissa Meyer’s erstwhile CEO position at Yahoo serving as aspirational figures for young women. But in Nair’s time, “There certainly were no female models for me to look up to or follow,” she told Khaleej Times.

As a human resources professional, Nair has been focused on making Unilever a more equal organisation, mirroring at least in gender diversity the real world, she wrote in a LinkedIn post.

In an episode of Learn With Leena, a podcast and newsletter she publishes on LinkedIn, she spoke about the need for paternity leave being key to the idea of diversity and inclusion. “If we want true gender equality, we have to make it easier for dads to share the parental duties.”

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