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Feb 28, 2024

Runway to Business Ep.3: Leena Nair, the Outsider Who Climbed Chanel

Is it possible that the woman who spearheaded HR at Unilever for 30 years is now at the helm of one of the world’s primary luxury brands? Indeed, if that woman is Leena Nair. The British-Indian business executive assumed the role of Global CEO at Chanel in January 2022, handpicked by none other than Alain Wertheimer himself. 

Formerly, Nair served as the Chief Human Resources Officer of Unilever and was a member of the leadership executive. Her educational journey is diverse, having earned her bachelor’s degree in electronics and telecommunication engineering before specialising in management development and human resources.


An Exceptional Leader Prioritising People-centric Values 

Today, Leena Nair advocates for human-centric workplaces and compassionate leadership. “The way I lead is about putting people at the centre of what you do. If you look after people, they will help you take care of the business,” Nair emphasised in a recent interview with Business of Fashion. “It’s about galvanising and inspiring people.”

Now, Nair’s primary focus at Chanel is, in her own words, “to ensure that our iconic house continues to be a beacon of inspiration for the next 100 years.” The three key pillars of her management approach are technology, craftsmanship, and sustainability.


Navigating a Man’s World – The Triumph of a Great Businesswoman

In a recent interview, Leena Nair reminisced about her early days as a young female executive climbing the ranks at Unilever in India, where co-workers regarded her “like an alien” as she was often the only woman around. 

Being treated as an outsider was a challenge Nair embraced. “You can’t do it? Says who?” she used to say. And she was right. When appointed Global CEO of the French luxury goods maison Chanel in December 2021, she also became the first external executive to lead the company since Maureen Chiquet left in 2016.


An Accolade-Rich Trailblazer 

Last year, Leena Nair was featured in Forbes India’s Top Self-Made Women’s List. In 2021, she was honoured at The Great British Businesswoman’s Awards as Role Model of the Year and mentioned in Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women’s List. In 2020, she was recognised as the Global Indian of the Year at The Economic Times’ Prime Women Leadership Awards. Most notably, Leena Nair’s stellar accolades earned a royal nod in 2017 when Queen Elizabeth II acknowledged her as one of the most accomplished Indian Business Leaders in the UK. Now, that’s what I call regal recognition!



Clementina Bianchi