#WSIC2013: Wharton Social Impact Conference 2013 in SF

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, over 150 people packed an auditorium at the scenic Wharton San Francisco campus to hear about relevant issues in the social innovation space.

The event—The Wharton Social Impact Conference—was held on April 4th 2013 and featured two lively panel discussions by impact investors and social entrepreneurs.

#WSIC2013: Wharton Social Impact Conference 2013 in SFThe conference was organized by Wharton SF business students and was attended by colleagues, thought leaders in the field, aspiring social entrepreneurs, and members of the community interested in the topic.


#WSIC2013: Wharton Social Impact Conference 2013 in SF

Panel 1: The Impact Investors

The first panel brought together four prominent leaders in the impact investment space.  Geoff “Chester” Woolley of Unitus, a VC firm that invests in scalable businesses serving East Asia that address poverty. When asked about what kinds of social enterprises his firm funds, Mr. Woolley said that Unitus is more focused on funding great entrepreneurs rather than financing individual ideas. He emphasized the importance of having a talented, cohesive team.

Next up was Ed Marcum of Humanity United, that funds efforts to give voice to the underrepresented and advance human freedom. He was followed by Penelope Douglas of Social Capital Markets (SOCAP)–which oversees HUB co-working spaces as well as the SOCAP conference. She emphasized that markets + business are crucial levers of change in social enterprise. The final speaker of the panel was Raj Gollamudi of Omidyar Network who spoke about various forms of capital and the increasing importance of patient capital or slow money—to fund major innovation.

#WSIC2013: Wharton Social Impact Conference 2013 in SF

Panel 2: The Social Entrepreneurs

After a brief networking break, the event resumed for an engaging second panel.Oftentimes, there’s a certain electricity that is generated when you get a group of social entrepreneurs in a room. It’s as though their energy, passion, and perseverance radiates to those around them.This panel was no different.

Each successive speaker brought more to the table and delved into a particular unique facet of their social entrepreneurial experience. Leila Janah of Samasource was poised, articulate, and eloquent in explaining her non-profit’s commitment to alleviating poverty through job creation.

She was followed by Alicia Polak of the Bread Project whose candor and openness about creating a local job training & culinary program was disarming, instructive, and entertaining.

Always a crowd favorite, Back to the Roots co-founder Nikhil Arora recapped his journey into social entrepreneurship and touched on the remarkable growth and media their gourmet mushroom kits have garnered. Next up was Jill Vialet of PlayWorks who enlightened the audience about the importance of play and her company’s innovative approach to facilitate play-inspired recess sessions.

Erin Gruwell of Freedom Writers literally brought the crowd to tears with her story of her work challenging her inner-city high school students to write a book. Her passion for her work and her students touched not only the audience in the room but many thousands who watched the Hollywood movie based on her story, Freedom Writers (She was played by Hilary Swank)

In asking one of event organizers, Raghavan Anand about what he took away from the event, he shared his 3 key takeaways, “1) There is value in attaching meaning to money and seeing what impact it can make rather than the raw purchasing power; 2) As the quote goes, ‘Success does not drive happiness but happiness drives success’,” and he pointed out the passion that was felt when the social entrepreneurs explained their work. Finally, Anand noted “3) Happiness is not the end-game. Meaning is, as Viktor Frankl said. And you derive meaning by giving to others, and leaving your impact on the world.”

Storify: Wharton Social Impact Conference (#WSIC2013) in Tweets, Photos, and Posts

To get an even better snapshot of the day, below is a storify compiled to with images, twitter comments, and articles and posts.

[View the story “Wharton Social Impact Conference (#WSIC2013)” on Storify]

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.

Special discount from Back to the Roots
Having met the founders of Back to the Roots at the SF Green Festival 2011, I was immediately struck by the social innovation concept and the follow-through of the company’s dedicated founders.
To help Innov8Social celebrate our first 6 months, Back to the Roots is generously offering readers a 10% discount on their gourmet mushroom kits. Curious about how coffee grounds can yield up to 1 1/2 pounds of edible mushrooms in 10 days? Check out this fascinating 19 second time-lapse video….
Get the code on the Innov8Social Facebook pageYou can go to the Innov8Social Facebook page to find out the coupon code.
I had the pleasure of meeting and introducing Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora from Back to the Roots when they spoke at Sustainable Home & Organic Gardening stage at the 2011 Green Festival in San Francisco.  And while we worked through a few AV issues before they presented, I looked around to see the audience filling quickly. By the time we started the session I saw every seat filled with tens of people standing or sitting in the aisles to catch the action.I hadn’t heard about their adventures in mushroom farming which I soon came to see put me in a super-minority. As they talked the audience sat in close attention, clapping, laughing, and oohing with delight at their story, their journey, and their amazing and innovative product.Still Wondering, What is Social Innovation?It’s been 6 months since Innov8Social launched and my favorite question to answer (which also happens to be the most frequently asked one) still is so, what is social innovation again?

You can read a post about it here, but you see it in action below. Nikhil and Alejandro’s journey is the shiny example of how social innovation can reuse waste, how gardening and food production can be local, and how social cause can find an entrepreneurial outlet. It is not the story of every social enterprise or social innovator, but it showcases the untapped potential of connecting cause with business.

And as Nikhil and Alejandro emphasize below, you have to have the courage to ask the the unasked questions first….

The Courage to Ask: Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora speak at TEDxYSE 

Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora are the founders of Back to the Roots. This is their presentation at TEDxYSE:Unleashing Young Social Entrepreneurs on November 13th, 2010