Back to the Roots: Homegrown Organic Fun
Summer is still here. Want to get that sun-kissed look? Forget about the beach. Start with what you put inside your body. After talking to Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora, the co-founders of Back to the Roots (BTTR), this is what I think: This summer, I want to have some homegrown organic fun!
Since I started working with Green Lifestyles Network five months ago, I have developed a craving for natural products. First, I got a juicer and began purchasing boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables from local produce markets. Then, Natural Products Expo West and GLN’s EcoSalon Film Series directed my attention to organic farming. I began looking for the word “organic” in every trip to the market. I used organic body lotion, ate organic tomatoes, drank organic almond milk, etc. The more I tried them, the more I wanted to learn about them. I spoke to Alejandro and Nikhil about organic homegrown mushrooms, gardens, and community services; which raised my interest in natural products to another level. Sustainability went hand in hand with environment, health, and social responsibility. However, Alejandro and Nikihil’s entrepreneurial experience demonstrated how sustainability-when illustrated with innovation-can light up our everyday life.
What are the implications of the company name “Back To The Roots”?
Our company started off as “BTTR Ventures” and we thought it was brilliant. It would stand for “Back to the Roots” and how we could have “better” products such as “BTTR Mushrooms,” “BTTR Kits,” etc. Then we launched our mushrooms into retail with a display that said “BTTR Mushrooms. We were super excited. Within a few weeks, we realized we had a big error. People would come up to us asking why we were selling “bitter” mushrooms, or how we grew “butter” mushrooms! We realized that we should forget the acronym and stick with “Back to the Roots” -what it stood for the whole time!
According to your website, BTTR has been collecting waste from Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Hodo Soy, Linden Street Brewery, and Numi Tea in reducing landfill. What are your standards for choosing businesses to work with?
We have actually transitioned now to using rice hulls, sawdust, and cotton husks, and other organic agricultural waste. For all business decisions, we start with our values. In this case, [we decide if] our partners’ supply side, or sales side share our same values—hustle, passion, family, and universal happiness. If not, we’re not working with them. It could be a million dollar deal, but if it doesn’t pass our values test, we’re not doing it. We truly believe that in business, your values are more important than your monetary worth.
Regarding Mushroom Kit, why do you grow pearl oyster mushrooms instead of other types of mushrooms?
Oyster mushrooms are the fastest growing mushrooms. Starting off, we wanted to create a product that could inspire everyone; not just those with a green thumb. Oyster Mushrooms grow in just 10 days—so it’s something fun and easy to do for all! We’re now working on a Shiitake kit and a Trumpet mushroom kit.
We launched our product on Kickstarter—a crowd-funding platform. The money we raised wasn’t just donations, but rather pre-orders, as people got some sort of reward in return—either a T-shirt, an actual AquaFarm, or even a flight out to our headquarters to visit and spend time in the Bay Area! We had a $100,000 goal for 30 days, and ended up hitting nearly $250,000. It was an incredibly exciting experience to see the energy people had around the AquaFarm!
What did you teach in the “hands-on-sustainability” workshops in classrooms across the country? How many cities have you been to?
We have been to dozens of cities! In our sustainability workshops, we teach kids about a closed-loop ecosystem, and how in nature there is no waste! The mushroom kit is showing people that you can grow mushrooms from sawdust and rice hulls, The AquaFarm is showing people you can grow food from fish waste—and the amazing synergy between fish and plants. At the end, we ask kids to think what they see thrown away more frequently in their classroom or home, and then we ask them to brainstorm some fun and crazy ideas of how else that could be reused!
When did you start the 1-for-1 Facebook Campaign? Any memorable stories you want to share about it?
We started it just over a year ago. It’s been the most amazing program. It’s so fun to see the thousands of photos of people growing and enjoying their Mushroom Kit all across the country—plus then inspiring and supporting those same fellow mushroom farmers to take that experience into a classroom through the donation to inspire kids around growing their own food!
We both are passionate and inspired to make a positive difference in our communities—we’ve both been fortunate to have had the support of so many to get to where we are, and we feel it is our duty to help create a better community around us that can give opportunities to others as well. Sage is an incredible program—with nearly 500 mentors and mentee pairs each semester—reaching over a dozen elementary schools in Berkeley and Oakland! Since Alex founded Sage 4 years ago, it has become the largest mentorship program on the Berkeley campus and it’s so inspiring to see the impact it is making in the community. Also, in business, we both really believe that you can do good and make money at the same time.They can go hand in hand!