This woman gave up law to start a restaurant — and turned it into a successful street food chain

Nisha Katona, founder and CEO of Mowgli Street Food.

Mowgli Street Food

Nisha Katona didn’t really want to quit law. Her decades of working as a trial attorney didn’t feel like work to her, she told CNBC; neither does her current job as the CEO of the popular restaurant chain Mowgli Street Food.

“It wasn’t that I fell out of [love with] law. It’s just I fell head over heels in love with, became obsessed with, this other idea,” Katona said. “This food of my ancestors — what if there is a business in here?”

Turns out there was. Mowgli, with its focus on Indian home cooking, now has almost twenty branches across the U.K. Katona has also released four cookbooks, set up a charity and often appears on TV as a food expert.

Swinging from one branch to another

Before Katona started planning the first Mowgli restaurant, she was already teaching Indian cooking classes and writing cookbooks — alongside her full-time job as an trial attorney (or barrister, as it’s known in the U.K.). She wanted to preserve the recipes and food culture she grew up with as a second-generation Indian immigrant in the U.K.  

“I realised that in my classes people loved this food. This was not represented on the high street,” Katona explains. “That was when that entrepreneurial thought bit me.”

But pursuing Mowgli full time was not an easy decision. Concerns about taking care of her children, the mortgage on her house and investing her life savings caused her some anxiety.

“The roof over my family’s head there was at risk,” she says. “In the back of my mind I knew: This has got to work.”

And so she made sure she did not just have a plan A. “I took a lease that meant that I could get out in two years,” she says. “I designed Mowgli in a way so that it could be a coffee shop the next day.”

The interior of a Mowgli Street Food Restaurant.

She also did not immediately give up her full-time job. Late nights and little sleep were common as she spent her days as a lawyer and her nights training Mowgli’s first chefs and building the first restaurant from scratch.

“This is the advice I’d always give… Don’t swing across to that second rope until you know that second rope is secure. You’re gonna have to do both jobs for a little while.”

Becoming a female entrepreneur

This isn’t Katona’s only advice — especially not for female entrepreneurs, who she believes often have all the necessary skills but are not conditioned to see themselves as businesspeople.

You don’t need to be a business person. You don’t need any business knowledge.

Nisha Katona

Founder and CEO, Mowgli Street Food

But to Katona, it isn’t all about ambition, experience and appearances. “You can build businesses around words like love and betterment and purposeful and fulfillment,” she believes.

“You turn up in your pajamas if needs be, but it’s about real love and authenticity … Anyone can do it in that way if you’ve got the right product.”

In some ways, women actually have an advantage that helps them manage people and create businesses that make a difference, Katona says.

“We bring something completely different to business,” she explains. “We have these unique interpersonal skills, and this grace and this humility, and are equally capable to any male of running or starting anything.”

Skills can come from anywhere

Crucially, entrepreneurs also don’t need a business background to be successful, Katona believes.

“You don’t need to be a business person. You don’t need any business knowledge. You hire the right people in for that kind of thing. I would never do my own accounts, for instance,” she says.

Recognizing and using the skills you do have is key though, as Katona found while building Mowgli. In her case, she’s “all over” things like building the brand, creating recipes, designing restaurants and training chefs.

The interior of a Mowgli Street Food restaurant.

And skills can come from anywhere — her career as an attorney, for example, taught her to read people, which now helps her hire the right staff. And because she (and many others) already multitasked by managing her home and work life, starting Mowgli while working full time and raising children seemed that much easier.

“It was just another thread. It wasn’t the end of the world,” Katona reflects.

The first Mowgli restaurant was quickly noticed by investors, which she attributes to it filling a market gap. She turned them away, wanting to make the business her own and still thinking of Mowgli as one-location business.

She has now taken on external investors, but remains in charge as CEO.

Her final words of advice? “Don’t expect success.” After all, Katona never did — but still found it.

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