In 2009, on a bustling American college campus, two students, Alejandro Vélez and Nikhil Arora, discovered a fascinating fact in a lecture: used coffee grounds could be a fertile ground for mushroom cultivation. While others may have overlooked this nugget of information, Vélez and Arora saw it as a seed of a promising idea that would germinate into a unique business venture and eventually blossom into the flourishing gardening empire, Back to the Roots (BTTR).
Though initially strangers, Velez and Arora independently approached their professor to delve deeper into this unconventional mushroom cultivation concept. Their mutual intrigue fostered a professional connection, which led them to decide to pool their resources together. Thus began their journey into entrepreneurship, a path woven from their shared fascination with fungi and the resourceful reuse of spent coffee grounds.
Launching their venture from the unconventional setting of Alejandro’s fraternity house, they initiated mushroom cultivation. Used coffee grounds were collected from local cafes and repurposed into a nutrient-rich substrate for growing their product. This unlikely business endeavor stood in stark contrast to their academic backgrounds and the conventional corporate careers that loomed post-graduation.
However, true to their entrepreneurial spirit, Vélez and Arora willingly diverged from the traditional career path to invest wholeheartedly in their mushroom cultivation venture. Recognizing the innovative potential of their initiative, their alma mater endorsed their endeavor with a $5000 grant, marking the official inception of Back to the Roots.
As their unique produce garnered attention, Vélez and Arora started retailing their mushrooms at local farmers’ markets. Soon, they secured a place in Whole Foods, signaling a leap in their entrepreneurial journey. But amid this success, they realized that their true passion was not just in farming mushrooms but in inspiring and empowering others to grow their food. This insight steered BTTR’s transition from a mushroom farming venture to a comprehensive gardening company, offering user-friendly grow kits and a diverse range of outdoor gardening products.
Arora emphasizes this mission, stating, “gardening is so much more than just maximizing how many pounds of tomatoes we can grow; it’s about getting our hands dirty again and reconnecting with the land, our food, and ultimately, each other! What is more human than sharing food that you have grown with your community?”
Vélez and Arora pursued sustainable growth for their business, prioritizing funding for research and development over rushed expansion. They were mindful in building their team, favoring a small, dedicated workforce over a larger, disparate one.
As Vélez Ramírez shares, “What started off as curiosity and a love for farming turned into a passion to help teach families around the country how to grow their own food. Now, no matter how green your thumb is or how big your backyard is, you can easily grow your own organic food with back to the roots.”
The proof of their strategy is in the proverbial pudding. Today, BTTR, with a tight-knit team of 22 employees, generates more than $100 million in annual revenue. Its products are proudly showcased in prominent retailers such as Target, Home Depot and Walmart.
Their inventive approach to business has captivated celebrity investors like Gabrielle Union, Ayesha Curry and Alyssa Milano, who have all invested in the company. However, even amid their soaring success, Vélez and Arora have stayed grounded, always remembering the amusing origins of their journey.
Alejandro, fondly remembered as “the mushroom farmer” from “The Bachelorette,” may not have ended up with the final rose on the show, but he and Arora certainly found success in the verdant world of sustainable urban farming and gardening.
Produced in association with Benzinga
Edited by Saba Fatima and Fatima Khalid