Back to the Roots: How two undergrads grew mushrooms into a business

Nikhil Arora and Alex Vélez, co-founders of Back to the Roots

Alejandro Vélez and Nikhil Arora share how a chance meeting and a shared passion for sustainability changed their trajectory.

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. “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.”

Alex, Professor Alan Ross, and Nikhil stand next to a rack of their mushroom kits.

Alex, Professor Alan Ross, and Nikhil stand next to a rack of their mushroom kits.

After class, both Alex and Nikhil emailed Professor Ross for more information

“[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.

Establishing roots

Alex Velez holding packets of seeds

Alex Vélez, Co-CEO of Back to the Roots, with seed packets from their product line

Samantha Cooper

Alex grew up in Medellín, Colombia, and witnessed pain and tragedy related to cartel activity. His mother married a U.S. Marine, and Alex, his mom, and brother all moved to the small town of Paw Paw, Michigan.

“I was the only Hispanic kid in the entire town,” Alex says. “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.”

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 detected lymphoma and he underwent four rounds of chemotherapy. The diagnosis and treatment had a profound impact on his high school years, but once he was cancer-free, the experience had a positive effect on his life.

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 redshirted his freshman year of college, but realized after a year he was better off putting his energy towards school. He focused on getting an internship and eventually accepted 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.”
Nikhil Arora and Alex Vélez appear at the podium during their 2009 graduation from UC Berkley.

Nikhil Arora and Alex Vélez at their graduation from UC Berkeley in 2009.

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 at Whole Foods in the evening. It was 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, six days a week, for two years.

Launching kits

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.”

From Amazon, Nikhil and Alex learned 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.”

Did you know?
Customer reviews can help guide your product strategy

Looking to level up your research and development? Amazon’s Customer Review Insights can help. With this resource, you can see at a glance what customers like about products and identify opportunities for improvement to perfect your offerings.

Back to the Roots kits have sold millions of units around the world, both online and in brick-and-mortar stores like Whole Foods. Selling fresh produce, getting kits into the hands of customers, and advertising 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 by connecting with a diverse audience, including younger customers. Positioning themselves as an organic garden brand for the next generation helped lead Back to the Roots to generating millions in revenue.

In 2021, the company made a commitment to diversify packaging, and all the families featured were Black Americans. Author and business owner Ayesha Curry joined the board of directors, and Back to the Roots has collaborated with Ayesha’s foundation on events.

Back to the Roots co-CEOs Nikhil Arora and Alex Velez wear black Back to the Roots shirts and Nikhil picks up a handful of dirt from a potting mix bag.

Back to the Roots sells many garden products in addition to their mushroom kits, like seed packets and potting dirt.

Samantha Cooper/samantha tyler cooper

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 Hispanic Heritage Month.

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.

Shop Back to the Roots

Eric SanInocencio
Eric SanInocencio
Eric is a Sr. Content Manager who spent 15 years working in sports, so it should come as no surprise that he thinks of sellers as Amazon’s ‘star players’ and loves telling their stories. Eric also coaches his children’s baseball and softball teams, and you can find his family at a sports field year round.
Camille Cherry
Camille Cherry
Camille is a Content Manager & Producer who loves learning about sellers, their small businesses, and why they ditched their 9 to 5 to become their own boss. Previously, she worked in communications at the Pentagon and as a promotions producer for news affiliates in Washington, DC and Virginia. Camille is a happy supporter of the arts and musical theater.