Usindiamonitor.com is pleased to bring you an interview with young Indian-American entrepreneur Nikhil Arora, who co-founded the company Back to the Roots with partner Alejandro Velez while they were still undergrads at UC Berkeley in 2009. Back to the Roots is all about mushrooms: growing them, selling them to major grocery chains including Whole Foods, and even selling boxed starter kits so that individual customers can grow their own delicious mushrooms at home for personal consumption. More uniquely, the business grows all of the mushrooms in used coffee grounds, resulting in a major diversion and re-use of spent organic waste that has saved nearly 4 million pounds of grounds from the waste stream. In effect, the company functions simultaneously as a grower, distributor, and recycler.
We thought it was very cool to find UC Berkeley students starting a new green agricultural business in Oakland instead of joining the ranks of drones at software companies, financial engineering firms, or consultancies which are more ubiquitous throughout the Bay. Like their mushroom starter kits, Back to the Roots is growing and is now hiring for multiple positions. We also wanted to get a sense of how this startup took a simple idea from a Berkeley science lecture and turned it into a national- and perhaps one day multinational- company. Fortunately Nikhil was able to share his thoughts with us this week. (And Nik, I got something for you on the green roof idea.)
The story of how your company started is very interesting. At what point in the process did you realize this would be a viable business model?
Arora: I’d have to say that the realization was a slow process, starting with the first successful bucket of mushrooms in Alex, my co-founder’s, fraternity kitchen. When we returned from spring break and found an overflowing bucket of mushrooms, we knew we were on to something. After we had support from Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, and the Berkeley Whole Foods, we realized it could absolutely be a viable business model and we had to go for it.
Most of us hear or read about hundreds of cool ideas every week but don’t do anything about them. Why did you make the transition from hearing about mushrooms growing in coffee grounds during a lecture to actually giving it a try?
Arora: We both felt somewhere in our hearts and minds, during those few seconds when the fact was brought up, that this had the possibility to not only be a successful business (not exactly sure how at that point!) and do good for the community at the same time. We both had passions for business, but I was also into environmentalism and Alex education; so this was the perfect chance to combine our passions for social justice and business!
Mushroom grower isn’t a traditional career path for Indian-American college students from UC-Berkeley. Did you face any resistance or ridicule from your community or elsewhere?
Arora: It’s definitely not a traditional career path for any student – Indian-American or not! I have been really fortunate to have amazing support from my family since Day 1- they were there from that first bucket, encouraging me to continue! I couldn’t have done this without them. There was definitely a ton of questions and doubt from some friends/others in the community, but luckily Alex and I had strong support from our closest friends and family who encourage us to continue!!
Do you think the business could expand to other countries, especially poor countries with food shortages such as in South Asia?
Arora: I do think the business can expand into other countries, and I hope eventually it does. Our main focus, though, is teaching people about growing their own, and inspiring them to do so. The mushroom kits represent an unlikely food source – waste – and they go to show that food can come from places where we least expect it. We don’t really expect the kits to solve food shortage problems, but we hope it inspires people to look for food in unlikely places and learn about growing their own instead of relying on others for food. That way, every one can be sustainable in that they are taking care of themselves and in that they are taking care of Earth and growing naturally.
Are there are other types of produce that might grow in coffee grounds and are you looking to expand into those? Or just stick with the ‘shrooms?
Arora: Other types of mushrooms can be grown in coffee grounds, but otherwise produce really needs natural soil. We are creating a new box that will have seeds embedded in the cardboard so that once a family is done with the box, they can plant the cardboard and grow a new garden with tomato, basil, and parsley. We’re also looking into creating other growing systems for vegetables and herbs.
Can mushroom growing be incorporated into green roofs?
Arora: Absolutely – if anyone is interested, shoot us an email!
What is it about coffee grounds that makes them so conducive to growing mushrooms? Are there other types of recycled material that might work as well?
Arora: Coffee grounds work really well because they’re rich in cellulose, already sterilized through the brewing process from cafes, and have the right moisture content needed to grow the mushrooms. Other waste streams could be used – we really suggest reading Paul Stamet’s book on how to grow gourmet mushrooms – he talks about other mediums as well in there.
Can you describe the role of social networking in your business?
Arora: Back to the Roots is very active on Facebook with our One Photo, One Kit campaign. Social networking in this sense has been a great way to spread our mission of making food personal again because we can really engage with our customers and hear about their interests. For every photo that someone posts on our Facebook of their kit, we’ll donate a kit and sustainability curriculum to a school of their choice. We’ve reached over 10,000 kids this way, and we just crossed 10,500 fans on Facebook so we can’t wait to reach more! The mushroom kit timelapse video on Youtube also just crossed 2 million views, which is another neat measurement of interest in the kit and mushroom growing.
Are you concerned about competitors or copycats?
Arora: Nope – we’re more excited to be at the forefront of a movement and encourage all to grow their own food at home! It’s been fun to develop a new product and take it to the mainstream. We also do have a patent on our design of the Mushroom Garden. Since our product is the first one of its kind – grows quickly, is small enough to be put on the kitchen counter – we’re not too worried about copycats or competitors because we’ve really dug in and built the first niche for the product. We also have a patent on the design of our mushroom kit. We’re also starting to expand our products, so even if someone else puts out a similar product, we’ll still have other offerings.
What advice would you give to would-be entrepreneurs based on your experience?
Arora: Hustle, Passion, and Focus. Starting something takes more work than you can ever imagine – be ready and excited for it. Be ready to live and breathe your product or idea – genuine passion is the best sales pitch possible – people will be attracted to that more so than your product. Focus: pick one thing and do it better than anyone else in the world – success will come quickly from that intense focus!
Ever had any luck foraging for wild mushrooms?
Arora: Surprisingly, no. That’s why we create Mushroom Gardens – for people like us who just want an easy, safe way to eat fresh mushrooms! We’re the first to admit, we wouldn’t feel comfortable foraging a wild mushroom without a foraging expert near by!
What’s your personal favorite way to prepare mushrooms?
Arora: Mushroom tacos! Our warehouse manager – Osvaldo – is an incredible chef and he cooks up a delicious Argentian oyster mushroom taco recipe – I could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner!
Excuse me while I go make myself a batch…
Conducted by Editor Mahanth S. Joishy