In honor of Hispanic Heritage month, Alejandro Vélez, and his co-CEO Nikhil Arora, share how a chance meeting in their last semester of college changed their life trajectory, sending them “Back to their Roots.”
Nikhil Arora and Alejandro “Alex” Vélez had been in classes together at the University of California, Berkeley over the years, but had never met. Heading into their final semester, both had already accepted job offers, with Nikhil primed to take a consulting job in San Francisco, and Alex going into investment banking in New York. Then, one lecture and two emails changed everything.
“We were in this business ethics class together, taught by Professor Allen Ross,” Nikhil says. “He was giving a lecture about sustainability, and he mentioned a whole list of sustainable business ideas that he had come across, and that you can even grow mushrooms on coffee grounds.”
“This goes back to my Colombian background,” Alex recalls. “As my dad’s father was a coffee broker. Coffee is also part of Colombia, and I love coffee. So I hear this fact, that you can grow food on waste. That’s crazy cool.”
After class, Alex emailed Professor Ross for more information, and was connected with Nikhil—the only other person from the class who also wanted to know more. A total chance moment that changed the trajectory of their lives, especially because Alex almost missed class that day.
“[Professor Ross] said, ‘You guys both asked me the same question, so you should probably meet up.’ And that’s how we got introduced,” Nikhil says. “You fast forward to where we are today. It’s kind of wild. Look at how one moment totally changes your trajectory,”
“I seriously feel like I fell in love with my business soulmate,” Alex adds.
Alex grew up in Medellín, Colombia, and witnessed pain and tragedy throughout the Medellín Cartel era. His mother married a US Marine, and Alex, his mom, and brother all moved to the small town of Paw Paw, Michigan, where his mom supported the family.
“I was the only Hispanic kid in the entire town. I didn’t speak a word of English and overnight, they were like, ‘Your name is Alex.’ I just fell in love with the American and the Midwest culture. I played sports when I was little, and I feel like that’s a universal language, and I just got embraced by the Midwest. it’s funny because my blood is so Colombian, but I am so American at the same time. I feel like when I’m at my best, I’m this combination of the American dream and living in a tiny little town in Michigan with my stepdad.
Alex continued to face adversity through high school, where he played tennis and soccer, and at the age of 15 ended up in the doctor’s office with an injury. A chance scan while there found Lymphoma and he underwent four rounds of chemotherapy. According to the Mayo Clinic, Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s germ-fighting network. The diagnosis and treatment had a profound impact on his high school years, but once he was cancer-free, the experience actually had a positive effect on his life. Alex says:
I always say, “Don’t ever let a crisis go to waste.” I was a skinny kid tennis player, but I couldn’t play tennis for a year, and I gained a lot of weight from chemo. So right after the chemo was over and I was cancer free, I trained really hard. I actually became stronger, and I ended up playing at UC Berkeley.
Alex red-shirted his freshman year of college, but realized after a year he was better off putting his energy towards school. He focused on school instead, getting an internship, and eventually accepting a job in investment banking.
Paint bucket mushrooms
Alex and Nikhil met and bonded over their shared interest in growing mushrooms from coffee grounds, but Nikhil says that growing mushrooms into a business wasn’t so easy:
For the next two or three months, we were meeting up and emailing each other back and forth. We were trying to dive into this, and doing research on YouTube, and putting down finance books for my ecology books in the library. Right before spring break, we ended up planting. We were like enough of this research and let’s just try this thing out. We ended up planting 10 paint buckets of mushrooms with some coffee grounds.
They left the mushroom buckets in Alex’s fraternity house kitchen, and when they got back from spring break, Alex immediately called Nikhil. Out of the 10 buckets, nine were completely contaminated. But one had a crop of oyster mushrooms. That was the first time they saw something actually grow, and they knew they were onto something real.
After the first crop of mushrooms, Nikhil and Alex took that bucket around to local restaurants and grocery stores, trying to get some early support for their business, Back to the Roots. “We had the first bucket that grew, and walked it into our local home food store,” Alex says. “We said, ‘Hey, we think we figured out to grow mushrooms on coffee waste. Are you interested?’”
It didn’t take long before they started getting interest. Just before graduation, they received a $5,000 grant from the school chancellor for having a sustainable business idea. Then a regional buyer at Whole Foods called, and Nikhil and Alex knew they were going to see Back to the Roots through. They walked away from their corporate careers to grow mushrooms.
Nikhil and Alex spent the next two years picking up coffee waste from local coffee shops. They would take it to their warehouse, seed the mushrooms, harvest in the afternoon, then demo product at Whole Foods in the evening. It was 5 AM to 9 PM every day, six days a week, for two years.
Eventually, Back to the Roots expanded into people’s homes and started selling mushroom kits. That’s when Amazon came into play.
“We launched the mushroom kit two-and-a-half years or so into the business. What got us excited about the kit was that this is the chance for us to share the same passion about growing fresh food, not just with our local community, but to everyone, every classroom, and every kitchen,” Nikhil says. “When we launched the kit, right away we went on Amazon, and we were one of the early partners with Amazon Launchpad.”
From that partnership with Amazon Launchpad, Nikhil and Alex learned how much Amazon can help, and that there was a larger community they could tap into. “It was huge. I think a lot of people just think of Amazon as transactional,” says Alex, “but there’s a whole community of folks. [Launchpad] helped us learn how to use Amazon.”
Back to the Roots has had success with other programs too, like the Treasure Truck, and their kits have sold millions of units around the world, both online and in brick and mortar stores like Whole Foods. The experience of selling fresh produce, getting kits into kid’s hands both in-store and online, advertising, and being a major gift during the holiday season are all part of their omnichannel strategy.
They’ve also seen how online sales have played a key role in their growth, especially over time. “Very quickly over the years it went from Amazon being not important, to Amazon being one of the most important—if not the most important—partner to have,” Alex says.
Business as a force for good
Alex and Nikhil are moving the needle in the gardening category, to make it more diverse and younger than it’s been before. Today, Back to the Roots is generating millions in revenue, and is the “organic garden brand for the next generation.”
In 2021, the company made a commitment to diversify their packaging, and all the families featured were black Americans. Author and business owner Ayesha Curry joined their board of directors, and Back to the Roots has done events with Steph and Ayesha Curry’s foundation in recent years.
In September 2022, The Hispanic Heritage Foundation honored Nikhil and Alex with the 2022 Entrepreneurship Award at the 35th annual Hispanic Heritage Awards. The award was created by the White House to commemorate the establishment of Hispanic Heritage Month in America.
Every year, Nikhil and Alex also try to go back to UC Berkeley and visit Professor Ross’s Business Ethics class to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs. “It’s really fun to go back and reconnect every year,” Nikhil says, “I think the biggest thing I learned from him is, he was the first one who exposed me to this whole new way of business, Like B-Corps, conscious capitalism, and using business as a force for good.”
Listen to Alex and Nikhil tell their story on Amazon’s podcast, This Is Small Business.