Alejandro Velez and his business partner, Nikhil Arora, were undergrads at University of California, Berkeley, so the story goes, where they were taking a class in which they learned that mushrooms can grow on coffee grounds. It was, perhaps, an unlikely “A-ha!” moment; at an age when many college students' experiments with growing are limited to yeast cultures required to make beer, Velez and Arora were experimenting with mushroom farming... in the kitchen of their frat house.
Velez already knew a thing or two about agriculture. His uncle and cousin run a fertilizer company in Colombia, where Velez was born and from which he emigrated when he was 10 years old. But he wasn't exactly intending to turn into a farmer himself; Velez, like Arora, was on track for a successful career in finance. As it turned out, his professional journey would draw heavily on both skill sets.
Velez and Arora founded Back to the Roots in 2009, the same year they graduated. Their first product was a small box—not much larger than a brick—packed with the substrate any amateur farmer would need to grow their own mushrooms at home, in just 10 days. It wasn't long before the dream cooked up in their frat house kitchen took root. “The idea that we could turn a waste product into food fascinated both me and Nikhil,” Velez says of the grow-your-own mushroom kits. “Not only were we able to turn a waste product—the coffee grounds-- into our mushroom substrate, we were able to sell the waste from the mushrooms to local farmers and gardeners who were taking our waste product of a waste product and turning that into food.”