Wink-wink references to “Leena’s Loos” can be heard even today in the India office of the FMCG giant, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL). Leena Nair, who was named as global CEO of luxury fashion house Chanel last year, after a long stint as the Chief Human Resources Officer at Unilever, often recalls this story when she is asked about the challenges of the years spent working up the ranks to become the youngest-ever CHRO of HUL.
She talks rather animatedly about the number of times she found she was the only woman in the room, nay, the office at HUL, India, and realised that they had no separate bathrooms for women. “I would go around asking, ‘Can I get a loo which I don’t share with men?’ I even suggested that they could be named after me as Leena’s Loo.”
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It continues to be joked about in the corporate boardrooms and at after-work parties at HUL, and Unilever, even after the conglomerate has achieved a 50:50 diversity ratio, thanks in no small measure to Nair’s efforts as first, its Global Senior Vice President for Leadership and Organisational Development, then as Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, and finally as its CHRO.
Back to the loo story, then (yes, there is more to it!). She speaks about how often on her visit to HUL factories in India, she would get harried by the lack of loos for women. It reflected a bigger problem: their absence on shop floors, she says. “There was never a loo for ladies because nobody imagined a woman would come to their factory. So, the first thing I did was to get them to build a bathroom for women, and they eventually came to be named as ‘Leena’s Loos’.”
The male-dominated shop floors are where she picked up most of her life and career skills, she contends. “You don’t learn what they teach you in any management class, things about factory and production lines, but also about resilience and bonhomie between team members.”
She credits those shop floor days and her work as HR boss at Unilever for what she is today, and what she brings to her new role in the world of uber-luxury, which is a far cry from her days growing up in Kolhapur, in Maharashtra.