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Back to the Roots grows business to “make money and do good”

Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora founded Back to the Roots—based on growing gourmet mushrooms in recycled coffee grounds—at the University of California-Berkeley. Their second product, the AquaFarm, has made waves with its urban farming concepts, appearing on NBC’s “Today Show” and more.


Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora, co-founders of Back to the Roots, developed their grow-at-home mushroom kits without knowing anything about mushrooms. Or even, really, food. After all, their careers after graduation from Berkeley were intended to be in investment banking and consulting. But they pressed on from their launch in 2009 to learn three key lessons, which they shared this afternoon at Big Omaha:

  • They recognized when buyers had specific reactions to their products. Arora and Velez noted kids and parents were sharing photos of their kits on Facebook. They responded by donating kits to elementary schools in exchange for posted photos. Their Facebook page went to 20,000 likes in just over a year. That Facebook community drove 75 percent of the Kickstarter when they launched their second product, the AquaFarm.
  • They recognized transparency is a short-term solution for a problem you’ll answer in the long-term. When their first retail kits produced mushrooms that looked a little odd and the photos started rolling in on Facebook, Arora and Velez posed the simple but public question, “What do you think that mushroom looks like?” The dialogue that followed was vulnerable and authentic. Back to the Roots now partners with Gourmet Mushrooms to help produce the kit, so the weird mushrooms are a thing of the past. Problem solved, but the relationship from the transparent communication remains.
  • They recognized they needed to ask their customers to follow them into a new venture. Arora and Velez realized they had two very different operations: the growth of mushrooms and the promotion of the urban farming experience. They researched a little-known farming technology called aquaponics and developed their AquaFarm. The product’s Kickstarter garnered just less than $250,000 in 30 days. 

It’s obvious, Arora said, that Google was aiming too low with their “Make money without doing evil” statement. “Come on now, you’re setting the bar way down there,” he said. “Make money and do good.”

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Big Omaha is a two-and-a-half-day event that aims to inspire, educate and celebrate the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the heart of the Midwest. Produced by Silicon Prairie News, it’s part of the Big Series, the nation’s most ambitious events on innovation and entrepreneurship.

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Credits: Video by Quadrant5. Snippet photo by Malone & Company.