Nisha Katona MBE became our first alumni Chancellor in January 2022 and is an ambassador, advocate and role model for both our students and staff.
After studying law at LJMU, she went on to work as a Barrister for nearly 20 years before setting up her own business, Mowgli, one of the fastest growing restaurant movements in the country. She is a regular broadcaster, has written several books and speaks on a range of themes relating to entrepreneurship, women in leadership and the hospitality sector.
Nisha was officially installed at a special ceremony at the Metropolitan Cathedral in March 2022 and presides over our bi-annual graduation ceremonies at the Anglican Cathedral. She returns to campus regularly in her role as Chancellor to meet with students and staff, taking great interest in the activities of our students and the progress of the university.
It is a role that she never imagined would come her way during her time as a law student studying at LJMU from 1992 to 1995. She describes it as quite ‘extraordinary and unfathomable’ to think that she would one day be at the helm of the university.
Talking about the role of Chancellor during her ‘In Conversation With’ discussion as part of our Roscoe Lecture Series in May 2023, she said: “What matters to me is that the students of the university can see what they can achieve, with the kind of background that I had, with the beginnings that I had. I’m really what happens when you repeatedly fail, in many ways. I was meant to do medicine; I was meant to pass my A-levels possibly the first or even the second time!
“What also matters to me is the fact that there are students that look like me, that sound like me, that come from the same background. For whom honestly the world is their oyster, they can have the most extraordinary life and I am blessed in that regard. And that doesn’t come because of who you know or where you came from in any way, it comes from diligence, passion, and pushing doors that are meant to open for you. In a way, that is the most important message. It matters kind of not if their parents know me, it matters that I look like many of the students at this university and they can have it all.”
Nisha’s parents came to the UK in the 1960s to work in Skelmersdale, West Lancashire. Her father was one of the only Asian GPs in the area, and her mother also worked as a doctor, it was in some ways groundbreaking but that came with its own challenges. Growing up in the 1970s, Nisha and her family were subjected to regular racism. She describes it as the ‘background noise’ to her upbringing and that food became the buffer between the family and their neighbours, eventually allowing them to be ‘accepted with open arms’. The power of food is clearly something that has influenced Nisha’s life, but long before becoming a successful restaurateur, she studied law here just as we gained university status.
She'd originally started a psychology degree at the University of Liverpool but after a year transferred across to LJMU to follow a career in law. This was in part due to the work experience she undertook Judge Marshalling with His Honour Dr David Lynch, which led her to totally fall in love with the profession.
Reflecting on her time as an LJMU student, Nisha found it extraordinary to call lecturers by their first names and that many of her lecturers were like friends. The very same lecturers supported her to take part in mooting competitions – mock legal trials where students put their learning into practice in a simulated court environment.
“I used to moot a lot. It was like having a hobby, you’re studying but it’s just endlessly fascinating. It really helps when you're at uni and you’ve got an aim at the end of it, you’re doing a degree because you want to do something with it at the end of it. I was very propelled right the way through my experience.”
Her enthusiasm for studying law has left a lasting impact on her own family, with her two daughters following in her footsteps to pursue careers in law, with one of her daughter’s part-way through her degree with LJMU’s School of Law.
“Being recognised for bringing the dishes she enjoyed at the family table to the wider public is an incredible achievement. For business students, Nisha is an inspiration for how to do things properly, with credibility and without losing sight of the impact your own story can have on the generations who will follow.”
– Pro-Vice-Chancellor Tim Nichol
After gaining her degree, Nisha joined Lincoln’s Inn as a Barrister in 1996. She later returned to Liverpool and built up a successful family law practice over 18 years, specialising in child protection.
She was considering taking further exams to become a Judge, but at this same time in her life was when the entrepreneurial bug took hold and Mowgli was born.
“Mowgli took over really astonishingly. I built Mowgli while I was still practising at the Bar. What happened is I started teaching Indian cooking while I was still a Barrister and people, very much liked the food and would constantly ask me for the recipes. So, I thought, maybe there is something in this.”
She left the Bar in 2014 as Mowgli became a ‘living beast’ with people queuing around the corner for a taste of her authentic cuisine. “She demanded my time 100%, so three months in I took a sabbatical, and I'm still on that sabbatical nine years on.”
Today Nisha has more than 900 staff, who she affectionately calls her children, and is now building her 21st restaurant. Mowgli combines Nisha’s dedication and commitment to sharing her love of Bengali cooking, driven by a compassionate business model underpinned with integrity and a great community spirit.
“Work should be a place of solace, that feeds you. That’s my ambition to build a business that simply exists to enrich the lives of people... everyday my main concern is how do I make the lives of my employees extraordinary.”
‘Baked into the business’ is the idea of giving back, with more than £1.7 million raised to date. As well as fundraising for good causes locally through her charitable champions at every restaurant, for every full-time member of staff employed the business also sponsors a child in need through global charities.
In acknowledgement of her incredible achievements, in 2019 Nisha was appointed MBE for her services to the food industry and was recognised with a Fellowship from LJMU.
In May 2023, Nisha delivered our 138th Roscoe Lecture Series event, in a special ‘In Conversation With’ format, talking about her life with fellow LJMU law alumni and BBC Parliamentary Correspondent Sean Curran.
Her lasting words to the audience and to the students of LJMU in 2023 was that: “As long as you’re doing your best, there’s no such thing as failure.”