On Tuesday 14th June, the York Union hosted the founder of Cobra Beer and independent crossbencher, Lord Karan Bilimoria, as part of York’s Festival of Ideas. The event saw Lord Bilimoria explain his journey to become a successful entrepreneur, as well as sharing his outspoken opinions on key topics in British politics, such as the EU Referendum, the main political parties and immigration.
The event was split into two parts. First, Bilimoria gave a talk on his business, early life and political views and then questions were handed to the audience. Bilimoria began by explaining how the idea for Cobra Beer came about and the challenges he faced at this time.
Bilimoria graduated at a very young age and started university in India at sixteen. In the early 1980s, at nineteen years old, he moved to England to study. When he left India it was a “loser economy” and England was a “sick man of Europe.” “Oh, how things have changed,” said Bilimoria. Now, he regards England as the “envy of Europe”, and was keen to point out how India is a global emerging super power.
At that time, entrepreneurship was frowned upon and those who tried to start their own businesses were often seen as ‘Del Boys’. Nowadays, entrepreneurs are highly regarded and seen as respectable. The hostile perception on entrepreneurship was just one of the challenges Bilimoria faced in the 1980s when trying to start his own business. He explained that he had been warned multiple times by his family that, “you won’t be allowed to get to the top as a foreigner.” Bilimoria is confident that this glass ceiling has been shattered today, with ethnic minorities reaching the top in almost every field.
Bilimoria’s personal experiences with alcohol, in particular his dissatisfaction with fizzy lager and fondness for real ale, gave him the idea to found what would become Cobra Beer. He found that real ale was too bitter with food and lager was too bloating. From this, he came up with the perfect combination: a blend of the refreshing taste of lager with the bitterness of real ale. He explained that this was the beauty of innovation and enterprise: all it takes is a simple idea to start a successful business.
The entrepreneur’s father was an Indian Army Officer who believed that Bilimoria should “get a real job” rather than trying to start his own business. At school, Bilimoria faced challenges from teachers who told him that though he performed well academically, his lack of creativity impeded his quest to become a businessman. At this point, Bilimoria asked the audience if they believed they were creative. Only half of the audience members raised their hand in agreement. He reassured the audience that they were all creative but weren’t aware of it because our ability to be creative is often suppressed during our childhood.
Bilimoria has nearly lost his business three times and expressed how it’s “having guts” that allows the best entrepreneurs to overcome similar obstacles, setting them apart from other less successful businessmen and women. This was advice that he had learnt from a meeting with an entrepreneur in Leeds when he was first starting his Cobra Beer business. Another important tip to being a successful entrepreneur is thinking global from day one: you must also be confident but not arrogant, ambitious but not humble, making sure you are courageous but also polite throughout your journey.
Unsurprisingly, Bilimoria raised the topic of the European Union. He was keen to explain his thoughts on Europe and British identity:
There is no such thing as a European identity, we do not think of ourselves as European. The UK is completely different from other European countries that share similar cultures.
Despite how this may sound, Bilimoria is very keen for the UK to remain in the European Union, as doing so does not take away our ‘British identity’. He believes that the current immigration policies are very damaging, especially to universities who have a high intake of international students. This new wave of strict policy is bringing immigration down, leaving many people feeling unwelcome. There is a “phobia of migration” that is damaging to the country. Bilimoria believes that leaving the EU would destabilise the country, resulting in a budget deficit, huge debt, increasing interest rates and the risk of another recession.
In regards to the Prime Minister and the EU Referendum, Bilimoria stated that David Cameron had no choice but to hold the referendum due to internal issues in the Conservative Party. Cameron needed to include it on his manifesto in order to get into power and miscalculated the amount of support the Remain campaign would have. Bilimoria believes that our country is “fantastic” and this will not change if we continue to remain in the EU. Britain excels in all sorts of fields including architecture, law, arts and culture and continues to be the 11th largest manufacturer in the world. Bilimoria spoke about how being in the EU has helped Britain’s growth in these fields, for example we owe almost half of our imports and exports to the EU. Additionally, the country is currently experiencing its highest employment rate in history with around 3 million employees coming from the EU. Bilimoria questioned if we’d be as successful without them.
Bilimoria also wondered how successful the EU would be without Britain. “The Euro is currently a mess,” he said, “and the only reason it’s still in place is because it’s too complicated to dismantle.” Although Britain is not a ‘superpower’ like the USA, it still remains a ‘global power’ and has a lot of influence in organisations such as NATO, the EU and the UN. Britain still has sovereignty even when in the EU, especially as we have not joined the Euro, and can be seen as a “beacon of freedom” for other Europeans:
Yes, Britain can survive if we leave the EU but do we really need to risk everything for it? […] How can the UK even think of being responsible for what might destroy the EU?
For Lord Bilimoria, three principles make a successful business: a strong brand, a strong team and a strong sense of values. Perhaps these principles are needed to reform a stronger European Union.