• With an aim to connect families to food, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez founded Back to the Roots - A startup that has launched two products - the Mushroom Kit and AquaFarm. The kits are available with more than 2,500 retailers in the US alone.

    In a business ethics class, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez learnt that recycled coffee grounds can be used to grow gourmet mushrooms. Inspired by this idea, Nikhil and Alejandro decided to refuse their finance and consulting job offers and started began working on starting a company of their own and named it Back to the Roots.

    Here we present an exclusive interview with Nikhil Arora as he talks about Back to the Roots, his journey so far and his definition of success and innovation. We got to know about the lessons that he learnt along the way by committing mistakes, that helped him grow. To know all that and more, read on!


    1. Could you please tell our readers more about Back to the Roots and the various products developed by you?

    Nikhil: Back to the Roots started off as an urban mushroom farm growing gourmet mushrooms entirely on recycled coffee grounds. We then realized that there was a huge opportunity to help folks discover food and grow their own by making our farming experience replicable in people's homes and classrooms. This led us to the Mushroom Kit, a small brown box that grows tasty oyster mushrooms in just 10 days - right out of the box. We then launched the AquaFarm, a self-cleaning fish tank that grows food!

    2. What made Alejandro Velez and you turn down your job offers and startup with Back to the Roots? What was going on in your mind?

    Nikhil: It was 2 things:
    1. A deep curiosity about this ability to turn waste into wages and fresh local food - that was really exciting.
    2. Our partnership - we really enjoyed working together - that was so important, especially during the early days when we had no idea what we were doing operationally!
    3. Tell us about your growing up years. What are your views on the thought "Entrepreneurs are born, not made"?

    Nikhil: I do not agree with this thought at all - entrepreneurship is something everyone has in them - it's deciding to do something unique, different, out of the ordinary for whatever reasons - curiosity, scarcity, ambition, etc. Everyone has it in them - it's a matter of the right circumstances. Also, entrepreneurship isn't some magical term/phrase.
    The folks selling vegetables on the street corner, newspapers in the plaza, etc. are all entrepreneurs - people just willing to say "I can do this!"
    4. What is your goal? Are you planning to develop more products other than Aqua Farm and Mushroom Kit? How do you define success?

    Nikhil: Absolutely - we want to build a brand that lasts for generations and inspires families across the world to ask "where does my food come from?" Success personally is happiness - doing what I love with people I love. If I can feel that everyday, that's success.

    5. How do you think your product can change the world? How important is innovation in today's world?

    Nikhil: Our products serve as a spark to hopefully get kids curious about where their food comes from and inspires a whole new generation to connect with their food.
    Innovation is vital - we can never take the world for granted / as a "given" - it was created by humans no more special than us, and we all have the capacity to shape it in a way that we'd like.
    Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez with their products - the Mushroom Kit and AquaFarm

    6. How is starting a food business different from other forms of entrepreneurship? What peculiar challenges does a small food business-owner face? Can food business run on a high profit mode?

    Nikhil: Food businesses are very personal - you have to really understand what you're doing - there are no shortcuts. It's not like an application where if you have a "software bug" something freezes here and there - people are putting your food into their bodies - it's a very sacred and personal job - something we take very seriously!

    7. What will be your advice to any wannabe entrepreneur? What do you think you probably should have known before starting with Back to the Roots?

    Nikhil: Do it. If you have the itch - you'll always look back and regret not trying it out. And when you do it - focus. Focus on one thing, however niche or small, and say I'm going to give this one thing (for us it started out as a Mushroom Kit!) and do it better than anyone else in the world. Focus on thing and execute on it like crazy. Then expand. Focus is key. And passion.
    Don't do anything that you don't dream about and believe as truth in every bone of your body - you can't bullshit entrepreneurship - it takes everything you have to build something new and you better really believe in what you're doing.
    8. What is the biggest mistake you ever made at Back to the Roots? What did you learn from it that others can learn from too?

    Nikhil: Thinking we could do it all. Find partners who can do what you do better and let them do it! Focus on your strengths.
    9. Thank you for your time. Any message for our readers?

    Love. Love what you do. Love who you do it with. Love the people you do it for. If all those are true - you'll be successful.
    We recommend that you check out Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez talk about their cool startup at the TEDxPresidio -
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  • Jason Estibeiro

    MemberApr 11, 2014

    These guys rejected their finance and consulting job offers and started growing mushrooms! That takes guts!
    And what they have done with waste is simply awesome and very unique!!! 👍
    Awesome TED presentation! 👍
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