Q&A with Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea

We speak to the new chancellor of the University of Birmingham

July 17, 2014

Source: Steve Stills

Entrepreneur Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea co-founded Cobra Beer in 1989. In 2005 he became the UK’s youngest-ever chancellor, at Thames Valley University (now the University of West London). He is a crossbench peer and in May was named chancellor of the University of Birmingham.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Hyderabad, India. My father was commander-in-chief of the Central Indian Army; as a result I ended up attending 10 different schools all around the country.

How has this shaped you?
Moving around a great deal gave me the opportunity to live in literally every corner of India – the most diverse country in the world in every way. It gave me a thirst to learn from new places and new cultures.

How does it feel to be a chancellor for the second time?
This second appointment is particularly emotional for me as the name Birmingham has been a part of my life from my earliest memories. My mother graduated from the university, as did her father and her brother.

What role did higher education play in bringing you to this point in your career?
There are so many examples of great entrepreneurs who have not gone through higher education, but I would not have sacrificed it for anything. In studying law, one had to read cases, journals, textbooks, acts of Parliament and judges’ statements and then apply that wide-ranging research in a focused manner to a particular case. In building Cobra into what it is today, the ability to think widely and creatively and apply that in a focused manner has been invaluable from day one.

Do you think universities do enough to offer their students advice about entrepreneurship or even entrepreneurship modules in related degrees?
When I first came to the UK in the early 1980s, entrepreneurship was looked down upon and conjured up images of Del Boy and Arthur Daley. I’ve seen the amazing transformation of the UK into a nation where entrepreneurship is flourishing. Today, people aspire to be entrepreneurs. We have seen huge progress, but more can and should be done. If we’re going to create a more entrepreneurial atmosphere in higher education, we need to foster closer links between businesses and universities.

How much is the UK’s immigration policy damaging the recruitment of overseas students?
I have been openly critical of the coalition government’s immigration policy over the past four years. I think that the immigration cap is a crude mechanism. We should be encouraging international students to come to our universities. They bring in £13 billion to our economy and contribute enormously to university life. The relationships built between countries at university last for generations – three generations in the case of my own family.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
My great-grandfather, D. D. Italia. He was an entrepreneur who started a successful business in Hyderabad. He built and lost his business three times, but always managed to look after his family incredibly well. He has been an inspiration to me and I have been lucky enough to be able to follow in his footsteps.

What’s your biggest regret?
I always wanted to do a PhD, but because I founded Cobra so young I never had the opportunity. But I suppose it’s never too late!

What kind of undergraduate were you?
At Cambridge I threw myself into university life. I was vice-president of the Cambridge Union, leading the debating team two years running against the University of Oxford. In fact, on both occasions, my opponent, the leader of the Oxford Union, was Michael Gove.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Aspire and achieve against all odds with integrity.

If it isn’t already, will you ensure that Cobra beer is sold in the Birmingham student union bar?!
That’s entirely up to students! But I’m sure they won’t be disappointed if they do!


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