Karan Bilimoria Q&A: “What would my specialist subject be? Beer!”

The entrepreneur talks debating Michael Gove, staying in the EU, and Margaret Thatcher. 

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Karan Bilimoria was born in Hyderabad, India, in 1961. He founded Cobra Beer after studying law at Cambridge, with nothing but £20,000 in student debts to his name.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting at the dining table of my great-grandfather, DD Italia, in Hyderabad. He was an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a member of the Indian House of Lords, the Rajya Sabha. I have adopted his motto on my coat of arms – “Aspire and Achieve”.

Who was your childhood hero?

My father, an army officer commissioned into the Fifth Gurkhas, troops world-famous for their extraordinary bravery. He commanded his battalion in the war to liberate Bangladesh, and I learned so much about leadership first-hand from him.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

I have always admired Richard Branson, the entrepreneur’s entrepreneur. His autobiography Losing My Virginity resonated hugely and his story has always been an inspiration to me.

Which political figure do you look up to?

When I came to the UK in the early 1980s, Britain was the sick man of Europe. I saw the ways in which Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain into an open economy, where anyone can succeed regardless of race, religion or background.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Beer! I have always loved beer.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’m a Zoroastrian Parsi, part of one of the smallest communities in the world, the descendants of the Persian empire. I would love to see the emperor Cyrus the Great at his height in the sixth century BC, when the Persian empire was the largest in the world. His Cyrus Cylinder – the first document of human rights – predates the Magna Carta by almost two millennia.

What TV show could you not live without?

Question Time. I’ve always enjoyed debating. I led the Cambridge Union debating team two years running. My opponent was Michael Gove!

Who would paint your portrait?

MF Husain, the amazing, prolific Indian artist with a distinctive style, who passed away in his nineties a few years ago.

What’s your theme tune?

The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. As an entrepreneur, you are always restlessly trying to improve.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

My father said that whenever you are asked to do something, don’t just do it, but do that little bit extra that you were not asked to do. Always be innovative and creative and always go the extra mile.

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit. It is an unmitigated disaster for our country, our economy and our citizens.

What single thing would make your life better?

Remaining in the European Union! Within the EU we have by far the best free trade agreement in the world.

When were you happiest?

On my wedding day. My wife has stood by me through all of the ups and downs of this journey.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Full-time politician. I am privileged to have been a member of the House of Lords for the past 12 years.

Are we all doomed?

Absolutely not. The beer glass is always half-full! 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad