We think food is one of the most important issues we can be working on right now — from health (obesity and malnourishment), to global warming (agriculture is one of the leading contributors), to education (direct ties between how kids are nourished at school to performance), to toxicity (herbicides/pesticides) in our environment, to social justice (food deserts), to just basic common sense ways to support our communities (40% of food is wasted right now)! We believe that reconnecting families (especially kids!) back to real food and where it comes from can become the spark of curiosity that will lead to a new generation of problem solvers ready to take on the world’s biggest issues.
As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Co-Founders & Co-CEOs of Back to the Roots, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez. Just named to Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies List of 2019, Back to the Roots is an organic food and gardening company with a mission to “undo food” by connecting families back to the food they eat. The Oakland-based company is sharing the magic of small-space gardening with homes and classrooms all over the US. In 2018, Back to the Roots became the first organic cereal ever offered in US Public Schools in New York, displacing Kellogg’s. And, through its #GrowOneGiveOne program, Back to the Roots donates indoor gardening kits and STEM curriculum to elementary school classrooms.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
We were both undergrads at UC Berkeley — in the same classes for four years, but somehow never connected. We both remember each other in various classes, but only when in our last year, both sitting in a Business Ethics class at Haas, did the stars align. It was a large class and our professor was talking about sustainability, eventually bringing up one seemingly random idea — how mushrooms could grow on recycled coffee grounds. As the two (crazy) students in the class who thought that was really cool we reached out to our professor SEPARATELY for more information. What are the chances, right? He ended up connecting us saying, “I don’t know much more about this, but this other kid asked me the same question!” We met, hit it off and from there both decided to trade in our finance books for coffee grounds and mushrooms. The rest has grown from there! :)
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
The world needs a big idea right now. Not only is Back to the Roots reconnecting this next generation back to real, simple food through our organic cereals & snacks, but we’re giving families the tools to develop small, everyday healthy habits that will impact the world in a big way. With our ready-to-grow indoor gardening kits we are increasing access to organic, real food (especially in schools), and helping families & kids experience the magic of growing their own food and learning where it comes from.
How do you think this will change the world?
We think food is one of the most important issues we can be working on right now — from health (obesity and malnourishment), to global warming (agriculture is one of the leading contributors), to education (direct ties between how kids are nourished at school to performance), to toxicity (herbicides/pesticides) in our environment, to social justice (food deserts), to just basic common sense ways to support our communities (40% of food is wasted right now)!
We believe that reconnecting families (especially kids!) back to real food and where it comes from can become the spark of curiosity that will lead to a new generation of problem solvers ready to take on the world’s biggest issues.
Really appreciate this question. Too often it seems we innovate for the sake of innovation — “new is always better” — especially when it comes to technology. Back to the Roots is different in that our idea to reconnect families back to real food in many ways uses technology to help make a tried & tested idea more accessible, not just to reinvent it or add new features. We think gardening & connecting back with our food can remind us of our humanity and of the simple fact that no matter how synthetic our food/lives get, it all comes from the Earth. The humility that comes from that is important as we look to address the biggest issues of our time. Food is the most universal language we have (i.e. “to break bread with someone”) and at its core it has the power to connect us to each other, to the planet and ultimately, to our future.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
After we started experimenting with this crazy idea of growing mushrooms on coffee grounds, we decided to plant some test buckets — 10 to be exact — in Alex’s fraternity kitchen. We’ll never forget coming back from Spring Break and only one out of the 10 had actually grown. And, to be honest, we weren’t 100% sure of what we had actually grown…. and we weren’t about to taste test ourselves either! We took the bucket to the best restaurant in town, Chez Pannise, where founder Chef Alice Waters asked her head chef to try some. We couldn’t’ believe it! After a little sauté here, and little spice there, Alice said “wow — these are delicious!”
Fast forward two weeks before graduation, we were awarded a $5000 grant from our Chancellor for our mushroom farming idea. In one fateful conversation, (that we still remember like it was yesterday) we decided to forego our offers in investment banking & consulting to instead become full-time urban mushroom farmers!
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
Gardening isn’t new. Cooking and eating real, simple food isn’t new. But over time, these concepts have taken a backseat to packaged & frozen foods, the fast food industry, on-demand & delivery apps, etc. So, establishing home grown, organic food into families’ routines and educating a generation about where there food comes from… is kind of new.
We need to approach our food & health issues in three ways:
1) Policy Changes — how is cooking, gardening and nutrition, the basis of our civilization and self-sufficiency, not taught in school? It’s an elective course sometimes in college, if that. Food and nutrition education need to be part of every school’s curriculum.
2) Leadership — cultural, political and business leaders need to prioritize conversations around food and agriculture. It is a massive impact on our environment and our health. Organic and local isn’t a “hippie food trend.” It is one of the leading (if not the leading) answers to global warming and the growing health crisis in America.
3) Inspiration — there need to be more products that can engage and inspire families to get involved in learning about food. Whether it’s kits or curriculum, parents, teachers and kids need tools to help rediscover food and change daily habits that will ultimately better all of us and the planet.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1) Don’t try to do everything yourself. One of our biggest inflection points is when we realized we weren’t the best mushroom farmers. We found a partner that managed the farming aspect while we focused on R&D and raising awareness around our brand.
2) Just say NO. It’s easy to say no to bad ideas, but tough to say ‘no’ to good ideas and opportunities you really want to do — but you must have laser focus on outlined goals. Everything takes more time and is more complicated than you think. Do less and do better. We had one SKU, a mushroom kit, for years before we expanded and that continues to be the foundation and rock to this company.
3) No one really knows all the answers, but don’t stop asking questions. There’s no reason to make the same mistakes others already have. Yes, every business is different but the language and foundation of business is the same i.e. margin, cash flow, etc.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
Learn how to learn. Things are going to move fast and careers are going to be elongated. How can we learn, adapt and stay relevant in this growing fast-paced world? We have to learn how to learn quickly.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
People. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Passionate, actionable operators are rare. We’d use the money to take our time and find the right folks to work with who can accelerate our mission or support different ideas pursuing this same vision for a more connected food system and consumer.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
Good health and Good partnerships. The foundation of Back to the Roots is our partnerships, starting off with the two of us from day one! We’ve found the biggest impact and most fun — in both personal & business life — comes from partnerships. At Back to the Roots, we define happiness as doing what you love with people you love!
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Success doesn’t happen overnight. Through it all, the ups and down, it boils down to repetition, repetition, repetition. It’s doing the small things over and over again that eventually turn into something meaningful. The best visions and plans will undoubtedly change and need to evolve; but the work ethic and focus can’t. The Great Wall wasn’t built overnight…it was built by waking up each day and laying every brick as perfectly as you can — over and over again.
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
First, we would ask how he or she thinks the role of Venture Capital plays in our society; how do we balance the necessities of capital allocation and returns with the patience to truly evaluate and risk-assess new technologies? And, how do they evaluate businesses not just on profitability, but also the impact on all other stakeholders… the team, the community, the environment, etc.. Businesses are more than spreadsheets. Businesses impact lives today and for generations to come if done right. Beyond the value of a company, what values does that VC look for in companies to invest in?
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.