‘Engineering Taught Me To Claw My Way Up: Story of Leena Nair, Chanel’s New CEO


Chanel's new global CEO, Leena Nair was the first female and youngest-ever Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) of Unilever. Here's how a girl from Kolhapur landed the top job with an iconic French fashion house.

Leena Nair is the newly appointed global chief executive officer (CEO) of the French luxury house Chanel. The London-based Indian was the chief human resource officer (CHRO) of Unilever before taking on this role.

Leena hails from Kolhapur in Maharashtra and studied at Holy Cross Convent School before moving to Sangli to pursue electronics engineering from Walchand College of Engineering. She then pursued management from XLRI, Jamshedpur where she graduated as a gold medallist.

With three decades of experience at Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL), where she started as a management trainee in 1992, Leena joined the company at a time when only two per cent of the employees were women. At 52, Leena is the first female and first Asian chief human resources officer of the company. She was also featured among Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women 2021.

In several interviews over the years, Leena has attributed her keen sense of numbers to the training she received while pursuing engineering.

Leena Nair

She also jokes that her time at college also equipped her well enough to deal with men.

In an interview with Khaleej Times, she said, “There were 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.”

Known to follow her dreams, post her engineering degree, Leena joined the MBA programme at XLRI, and it was here that she decided to pursue a career in human resource management instead of engineering. Leena’s hands-on approach in solving problems and finding solutions to issues has been lauded by all at HUL. As an employee at the organisation, she also has several firsts to her credit — she was the first woman to work a night shift and the first woman on the management committee.

“I learnt so many lessons, about the factory and production, the shop-floor ecosystem, [and] the importance of resilience. It’s made me who I am. Hearing this can’t be done because it’s never been done before is normally the start of a conversation for me, where I’ll reply, it’s never been done? That’s fantastic. Tell me, how can we do it?” she said.

Meanwhile, her induction into this new role has invited appreciation from many people who have come to know her over her 30-year career trajectory, including Unilever CEO Alan Jope. “Leena has been a pioneer throughout her career at Unilever, but no more so than in her role as a chief human resource officer, 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. She has played a critical role in building our purpose-led, future-fit organisation, which is now the employer of choice in over 50 countries globally,” he said.

In this interview with Time, when asked about how she managed to stay positive through the COVID-19 crisis, Leena said, “I’ve written a gratitude journal every night for the last few years, and I do a 20-minute meditation practice every morning. Those little practices keep me sane and balanced as we go through this relentless exhaustion. When I go out for walks and have my run, I make sure to talk to my team so that they know I’m setting aside time for doing things that I love. I often joke that I’m the best Bollywood dancer in Unilever, so finding that time in a week to dance a bit too.”

“Reconnecting with your passions and things that you care about is so important to keep us going through this.”

Leena with Deepika Padukone

She also said that one of her key takeaways during the pandemic has been the realisation that while people were facing the same storm, they were not all in the same boat. “We couldn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach,” she said.

Leena also took to Twitter to talk about her new role. “I am humbled and honoured to be appointed the Global Chief Executive Officer of @CHANEL, an iconic and admired company.”

Overwhelmed by the outpouring of congratulatory messages and wishes, she was quick to tweet, “Overwhelmed by the love and support my appointment as @CHANEL CEO has got. Thank you! Please trust that I am reading every comment, even if I don’t reply to everyone individually.”

(Edited by Divya Sethu)

Deep Dive

The Better Mentor

See All

We at The Better India want to showcase everything that is working in this country. By using the power of constructive journalism, we want to change India – one story at a time. If you read us, like us and want this positive movement to grow, then do consider supporting us via the following buttons.

Please read these FAQs before contributing.

Let us know how you felt

  • love
  • like
  • inspired
  • support
  • appreciate
Sign in to get free benefits
  • Get positive stories daily on email
  • Join our community of positive ambassadors
  • Become a part of the positive movement