Leena Nair was a surprising pick for CEO of Chanel in 2021. She’d long run the human resources department at Unilever but had never actually helmed a company. Her qualifications were clear, though: for 30 years at Unilever, she proved that big companies could become more socially conscious and treat employees well without losing market share. This worked out well for Unilever, which for its sustainability and diversity efforts, increasing its share of female managers to 50% from 38% during Nair’s tenure as chief human resources officer.

Nair, who was named one of TIME’s earlier this month, has already brought her brand of management style to Chanel, a fashion behemoth that is privately held by the Wertheimer family, which has been involved with Chanel for a century. Nair, who has a degree in electronics and an MBA, brings in colleagues to help shape decision-making and is pushing the luxury company to make environmentally and socially responsible commitments. She increased funding for Fondation Chanel, the company’s charitable arm, to $100 million from $20 million, enabling more efforts to support women in countries across the world.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I know you grew up in southwest India and a lot of women in your life did not pursue careers but instead got married. What made you decide you wanted to pursue a career?

My dad was a big sponsor for me because he believed that I was bright and should have an education. But I was fueled by seeing that I was not getting the opportunities that some of the men in my family were. There was a little bit of, “I also want to have the opportunity to do that.”

They were going to school? And you thought you should be able to do that too?

They were doing engineering for example. Girls didn’t do engineering, but I wanted to do technology and engineering because I enjoyed math and science and was good at it.

I always felt a sense of wanting to build equity and fairness, that was always important for me, everybody must get this opportunity. I wanted to use my voice for something, I wanted to make a difference in something, but I didn’t know what exactly. If you told me it would have something to do with luxury, I would have probably laughed and said, ‘That’s ridiculous. It’s never gonna happen. I don’t even know the world of refinement and sophistication and luxury.”

I think what drove me also is that I used to read a lot. There was no TV in those days in our town. So I read a lot. It opened my mind, I really was inspired by feeling the world, seeing the world. So a lot of dreaming happened, I can tell you. I still dream about the world being a fairer place, an equitable place, a better place.

I know you’ve been the first of many things. Did you have role models, or someone you looked up to when you were starting out?

No female role models. I mean, in my family no women worked. My moms and aunts were extremely loving, but many of them hadn’t completed college or school. My father was a self made man so I admired the determination, the dynamism. I loved my mother’s vibrancy, she was a connector. So it was specific qualities that I would look up to and get inspired by. My husband is also an equality fighter. We had an arranged marriage when I was 23.

But I must say I’m very, very fond of having mentors in my life. And once I have them in my life, I joke that I have my claws in and will never let go. [Former PepsiCo CEO] has been a mentor for the last few years. Nigel Higgins, who’s the chairman of Barclays. When I was early in the business, I would reach out to people who inspired me and say, ‘Hey, will you mentor me?’ Nine out of 10 people would say no, but one would say yes. And as I started growing and getting more senior, nine out of 10 people would say, yes.

At Unilever, the share of female managers increased from 38% to 50%. Many companies have lip service and say they want women in management but so few companies accomplish it. What did you need to do to make that happen?

I’ve been a champion for gender balance—I always use the words gender balance, because you need balance in both genders at all levels of management. It has to start from the top. You have to be intentional about it.

You have to make it a business priority like any other, which means you have to set targets, and hold people accountable. People didn’t look the other way if they didn’t meet their profit targets. It’s the same priority you have to give. Hold them accountable.

Every appointment you make, if you’re meeting two talented men for the role you must meet two talented women. Find them. So it’s about being deliberate, intentional, all the time, every single appointment, every single promotion, every single lateral move, every single international mobility. You have to be relentless in saying, “Hey, I’m not looking at a list if it’s not 50-50.” Then you make the appointment based on merit.

How do you convince people to come along with you on this journey?

It’s numbers and culture driving both together. While you’re doing this on the numbers, you try for culture, which is to ensure you’re creating inclusion, creating psychological safety so that people can speak their minds, feel free to challenge authority. It’s like bringing people to the party but encouraging them to dance. You’ve got to create that equal setting where people can open up and reveal a different point of view, have different beliefs and feel comfortable to do that.

And always being humble about the fact that we’ve come a long way, and we have a long way to go. When I look around today at business leadership, still it’s wherever 5%, 6% or 7% [female] CEOs—it barely inches up. Political leadership, it barely inches up. Climate leadership—it is heart-wrenching to see 125 male climate negotiators and maybe five or six or seven female climate negotiators.

What can other leaders do to help change these numbers?

Part of what I did at Unilever, and do at Chanel, is mentoring and supporting women. We are in the 21st century, but there’s still the challenge of impostor syndrome—women feeling like they don’t deserve to be at the table. There’s a lack of confidence, lack of self belief. Even today, if you’re looking at appraisals—I’m generalizing—but nine out of 10 men will say, “I’m so good. I need to be the CEO of this company.” Nine out of 10 women—and I’m generalizing—will say, “I want to do my current job well, I don’t think I’m really good enough to go for the big ones.”

So it’s constantly being aware of how ambition is perceived differently by both genders for whatever reasons, and being relentless and encouraging the women to step up, and helping the men understand that there’s space for both. So it’s really being skillful in working on numbers and culture. It doesn’t happen just like that. It doesn’t happen organically.

There are more women coming into education, more women topping classes and getting the best grades, and still not enough women in positions of leadership. So it takes courage, intentionality, and determination. You work on numbers, work on culture, and bring a sense of acceleration and urgency.

Given that Chanel is 70% women, how will you do that at Chanel? What do you see as the path for doing that at a place that already has a lot of women?

We at Chanel are so uniquely placed to trailblaze on a new kind of leadership. Nobody in the world celebrates compassion, empathy, kindness, benevolence. When was the last time you saw a business leader on the cover of a magazine because he or she has kindness, compassion—no way. But we have a female founder. We have a female leader. We are genuinely a business that supports women, serves women. Women are a majority of our clients.

It’s a great time to show that the days of the superhero leader are behind us. I have always believed in the collective voice, collective intelligence, diverse perspectives. For me, every voice mat