These Startup Founders Want You to Grow Your Own Shrooms

Courtesy of Back to the Roots

It all started with some mushrooms.

As two seniors about to graduate with a double major in finance and economics at UC Berkeley, Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora would have been the first to admit they knew absolutely “nothing about food or agriculture.” But on one fateful day during a business ethics class, their career paths shifted dramatically.

In an interview with Fast Company, Arora recalls that transformative moment: “Our professor said you could grow gourmet mushrooms on agricultural waste, like coffee grounds,” Arora remembers. “We both reached out after class to ask for more information, and he was like, ‘Honestly, I have no idea, but this other kid asked me about it too. You guys should link up.’”

Following his advice, Arora eventually linked up with Velez, and the two became fast friends. After dedicating their spring break to creating a mushroom farm in a frat house kitchen, they made a 180-degree turn and set their sights on a greener future: They decided to jump-start a mushroom wholesale business.

Success came quickly, and the shroom slingers found themselves selling hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms to local vendors and restaurants. But their ambitions outgrew their small farm and morphed into a new venture of creating an indoor and urban gardening company called Back to the Roots.

In ONE37pm’s interview with cofounder Alejandro Velez, he shared that curiosity with us, detailing the future plans for Back to the Roots, his inspiring meeting with Gary Vee and how the company managed to get New York City’s public school system to switch out sugary Kellogg’s cereal for their organic line.

Tell me about where you and your partner found your passion for urban farming and organic food.

Alejandro Velez: It was either investment banking or being a teacher. Those were my two thoughts and Nikhil Arora was going into consulting, and we both heard in our business ethics class that you could grow mushrooms with coffee waste. I thought that was remarkably random and kind of cool that you can take the waste and grow stuff on it. That led us to try to develop a product out of our kitchen during spring break. We cold emailed a guy that had written that you could potentially do this and nobody had ever really done it commercially. We eventually started hustling mushrooms in college, and that turned into giving up our job offers and becoming full-time waste collectors and mushroom farmers.

It seems like you are trying to change the way Americans eat and think about food. Is cultivating a deeper appreciation for food through gardening kits enough?

Velez: I wish I could say it was, but the answer is no—absolutely not. There are so many factors that go into bringing healthy food to every single kid and family in the country. I just finished Michelle Obama's book and a lot of the things she shared speak to the path that we're on. I think it's so clear how many layers there are to bringing healthy food to all schools, all kids and families. Just like Mrs. Obama mentioned in her book and Sam Kass, who she referenced a lot, I think we are trying to do our part. We think that by creating gardening kits that teach kids and families how to grow these mushrooms using coffee waste—as crazy and almost esoteric and random as it may seem—it is also this kind of magical moment for kids all over the country to say, "Holy crap, I can grow this thing, what else can I grow?" We don't see our urban indoor gardening kits leading the charge to solve world hunger. We are an all-around inspiration and trying to ignite curiosity and teach these kids in a way that makes them feel like they are having fun learning.

What's been the greatest challenge for you?

Velez: I think scaling our business, as well as getting the word out about what we do. The published articles about our business are everything to us, and as soon as teachers find out that our products exist and use them, they fall in love with it. We have received so many phone calls from educators crying and get all of these incredible letters from the students themselves about the projects they're doing in school and how it's turned into them building a garden outside and eating so many more vegetables, caring about where it comes from. It's crazy how these tiny little kits that we create here turned into this much bigger movement. At the end of the day, I think that we have an opportunity to make a big impact.

We hung out with Gary for around an hour and a half, and in that brainstorming session, he did the impossible and ate the entire pound of mushrooms from our kit.

- Alejandro Velez, Cofounder of Back to the Roots

You said you plan to sell 1 million new organic gardens in 2019. How’s that going?

Velez: The first few months of this journey have been really exciting. You know, at the end of the day, we owe a lot to our retailers where we are able to interact with our consumers. We are in about 12,000 stores around the country, anywhere from The Home Depot, our longest standing partner, to Lowe’s to Target to Costco. We’re also having conversations with Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond and Petco. It is online with Amazon as well. So I think we’re on our way. We have a lot of growth to do, but the most exciting thing and what makes us work so hard is the progress we are seeing.

You recently introduced your first hemp home grow kit. Why hemp?

Velez: Like so many of our other products, hemp is really easy to grow. It was recently legalized through the Hemp Farming Act. The hemp grow kit is just one other way for us to be able to get families interested in growing.

On your journey, who have you met who has really inspired you? 

Velez: Nikhil and I had the chance to meet Gary Vee years ago in his hotel room in San Francisco. We came in and had a fully grown mushroom kit to show him. We hung out with Gary for around an hour and a half, and in that brainstorming session, he did the impossible and ate the entire pound of mushrooms from our kit. So far, he is the only person we know who has devoured that much in that amount of time. We were like, “This guy is a beast.” He told us that he saw us in five years igniting the same movement that Toms did and making a huge impact. That has really stayed with us, for sure.

How did your collaboration with Ayesha Curry come about?

Velez: We’re both based in Oakland and we share such similar philosophies when it comes to bringing healthier food to kids. As soon as we got together, we immediately envisioned this product that we could develop together, and that’s how we created the Ayesha Kitchen Herb Garden. We recently went to a community center in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her and Steph Curry—they made investments to beautify the whole space and build a brand-new basketball court and a new state-of-the-art kitchen. We brought hundreds of our kits to donate to the kids. Obviously, it was way cooler to have [Steph and Ayesha] give away the kits. The kids were definitely more likely to get excited and talk about it with the teachers and get them on board.

We also did a collaboration with Fall Out Boy. Fall Out Boy reached out to us and we ended up meeting. Like the Ayesha situation, we came to a similar kind of idea of “Hey, we love what you guys do. We’re from Chicago. Can we do something special here?” And to get the word out, we donated 20,000 of our gardening kits. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but 20,000 ended up being 10 percent of all elementary school kids in Chicago.

So how do you forge connections with companies, brands and people outside of the food and education space? 

Velez: What’s been fun is that much of what happened has been really natural.

Last year, we teamed up with Carmelo Anthony because of his kid. We recently just displaced Kellogg’s at New York public schools. Our cereal has a fourth of the sugar that Kellogg’s has. In a blind taste test, kids chose our cereal over theirs. Our cereal is now feeding 1.1 million public school kids.

That was the first time in the United States that an organic cereal had launched in any public school district, let alone the largest one in the country, and that connection was through Carmelo’s son. He tried it and loved it. We didn’tknow this at first, but Melo is a huge cereal fan, and we ended up sitting down with them. It’s the little things like that where the relationship happens organically. We don’t have a department that focuses on forging these relationships, and I think that’s the beauty in it. People have reached out to Back to the Roots just because theybelieve, or want to believe, in the same thing we believe in.

Are U.S. consumers your primary target, or do you have aspirations of taking Back to the Roots globally?

Velez: Absolutely. We want to see every kid, whether they’re American or not, be more connected to food and, ultimately, be really conscious and serious about where their food comes from. From a mission standpoint, we want this to be something that eventually goes worldwide. Luckily, we’ve had some amazing retail partners that believe in the same crazy idea we have, that an indoor gardening category needs to exist. Home Depot six years ago wasn’t talking about organics or non-GMOs. We were the first to bring it to the gardening category. Now there are indoor gardening categories in every major home improvement store and national retailer.

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