There are paths, and there are callings.  Listening to the story of Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora of Back to the Roots is less like hearing about two recent college graduates who sought a path to become innovative social entrepreneurs—and more like social entrepreneurs who could not ignore a compelling call to connect the dots between business, waste, and sustainability.

Meet Nikhil and AlejandroAlexander Velez and Nikhil Arora

I met the dynamic co-founder duo at the 2011 Green Festival in San Francisco. As I emceed the Sustainable Home & Organic Gardening stage, one of the speaker groups I introduced was Back to the Roots (BTTR). Though I hadn’t heard of them, I could tell something was unique when the hall filled to capacity and people lined the aisles and stood in the back just to listen in to the guys.

They Launched Back to the Roots, Making Gourmet Mushrooms from Coffee Grounds

Back to the Roots, a certified B Corporation, is a food company dedicated to making food personal again. Their leading product is a mushroom kit which utilizes coffee grounds (waste) incubated with mushroom culture to enable people to grow organic mushrooms within days, in the comfort of their home.  The seed of this innovative, unconventional business idea was planted by a an Economics professor at their alma mater, Berkeley, who mentioned in passing that coffee grounds can yield mushrooms.

The pair, who didn’t even know each other, both reached out to the professor who connected them. The rest, as they say, is mushroom farming history.

back to the roots at green festival 2011Since those early days in 2009, Alejandro and Nikhil have worked to achieve success and create impact. Not only has BTTR been profitable from the outset, it has diverted and reused over 3.5 million pounds of coffee grounds, helped families grow over 135,000 pounds of fresh food, donated premium soil (a byproduct of the mushroom kits) to 10 urban schools. Their mushroom kits are sold in over 300 Whole Food locations.

Like a rolling stone gathers no moss, their company and mission have gained incredible momentum, traction, and reach. They are celebrated TED speakers, were named in Forbes List of Top 30 Under 30 in Food and Wine, and were among of a handful of entrepreneurs invited to meet with President Obama about challenges and solutions for small business owners.

Nikhil and Alejandro have been successful in engaging, exciting, and delighting their customer base. With over 20,000 Facebook fans, BTTR uses the medium to encourage customers to share photos, tips, and questions about the mushroom kit experience. And, thanks to a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, BTTR will soon be introducing an entirely new sustainable product, the Home Aquaponics Garden, that will create a mini-ecosystem of plants, fish, and water.

The guys and the BTTR are busy. Between growing the business, engaging in social entrepreneur advocacy, supporting community sustainability efforts, and connecting with media & press…I learned first-hand that there is barely a moment to spare!

Innov8Social had a chance to ask the Alejandro and Nikhil a few questions about their social entrepreneurship journey.  Their enthusiasm for their work and for supporting others in the field is inspiring, and we are glad to be able to follow their story and progress.

Read the Interview

back to the roots at green festival 2011 (3)

Interview with Nikhil and Alejandro, Back to the Roots Co-Founders

Q1 | Innov8Social:  How did you define social innovation before you started BTTR in 2009? And how do you define it now?

A1 | Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, Co-Founders of Back the the Roots:  Before we started BTTR in 2009, enacting social innovation ourselves took the form on internships and work on campus. Alex founded Sage Mentors, and I worked at University of Ghana on campus sustainability. There was the idea that business didn’t have to do harm, but as we created and built BTTR it became clear to us that business could also do good, and there were growing examples of this. We knew we could do it too.

Q2 | Innov8Social:   2012 saw a major scaling up of the distribution and offerings of BTTR, what were some the wins and challenges you have faced?

A2 | Nikhil and Alejandro:  One of our major wins was increasing sales of our Mushroom Gardens – this means that more people are growing their own food! It also means that we scaled up our One Photo, One Kit program on Facebook – for every photo that someone posts of their mushroom kit, we’ll donate a Mushroom Garden and sustainability curriculum to a school of their choice. Another win was launching our Home Aquaponics Garden – though that was a challenge as well! Funding was a major challenge which we decided to approach by crowdfunding the project.

Q3 | Innov8Social:   BTTR also launched a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2012—how was your experience in leveraging funding from your supporters to expand your product line?

A3 | Nikhil and Alejandro:  We had an awesome experience with crowdfunding – the outpouring of support from our customers and friends was incredible. Part of the reason we chose crowdfunding was so that our customers could be involved with the project and really be a part of it coming alive. They even helped us choose which seeds will be included with the kits!

Q4 | Innov8Social:   Do you have any advice for early-stage social entrepreneurs who are trying to validate their social innovation idea and gain traction?

A4 | Nikhil and Alejandro:   Be transparent. If people know what you’re doing, they know they’ll be able to trust you. We never hid our warehouse operations or our struggles, and so people knew that when we told them something, it was true. Also – talk to everybody! Live and breathe what you’re doing and it will start to attract attention.

Q5 | Innov8Social:   What are your goals for 2013 and beyond?

A5 | Nikhil and Alejandro:   In 2013, we’re really focusing on the official launch of the Aquaponics Garden – it’s on pre-order right now. We’re also planning a revamp of the Mushroom Garden that we’re excited to share in the coming months! As for beyond, BTTR is always brainstorming the next idea and we’re looking forward to continuing our growth.

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