The alumni cultivating a nation of growers
Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, both BS 09 (shown right), want consumers to know where their food comes from. Their gardening company, Back to the Roots, sells kits, seeds, and supplies for growing organic herbs, vegetables, and more, simplifying gardening so even those without a green thumb can have, well, a green thumb. From their beginnings in a dark warehouse in Oakland, California, growing mushrooms from used coffee grounds, Back to the Roots is now a national brand, with its products sold in thousands of stores, including Walmart, The Home Depot, Target, and more. But their journey wasn’t always a straight shot to growth. After 10 years of pivots, Back to the Roots is now beating brand names while connecting with the next generation of farm-to-table devotees.
Intrigued by a class lecture, Haas seniors Velez and Arora try cultivating mushrooms with used coffee grounds. They receive $5K in funding from UC Berkeley and by graduation launch Back to the Roots as a sustainable urban mushroom farm. Soon, they’re making DIY mushroom-growing kits for curious customers.
Though mushroom sales reach $250K a year to Whole Foods and locals, the real interest is in kits, so they refocus the company.
Velez and Arora crowdfund $500K to build an aquaponic garden kit. They quickly iterate and launch a version 2.0 after their first version is accused of copyright infringement.
Now making $4.6 million in revenue with products in 8,000 stores, Back to the Roots starts turning a profit. They reach 13,500 students with the Grow One, Give One campaign, which donates grow kits and a garden curriculum to elementary schools.
Velez and Arora launch 13 new products, including garden-in-a-can and the first U.S.-grown, all-stoneground breakfast cereal, which has just three ingredients.
The company raises $5 million in seed funding followed by a $10 million Series A round. Ready-to-grow kits and cereals reach 5,500 schools nationwide. Kits are now sold in 1,200+ stores in 800+ cities.
Back to the Roots supplies food to New York City’s 1.1 million public-school students. They also create an indoor gardening destination with The Home Depot and Whole Foods in over 2,000 stores.
With the garden business doubling year over year, Velez and Arora again refocus by selling the ready-to-eat line to Nature’s Path. They are now a gardening company. The pair deliver the commencement address to Haas undergrads (haas.org/bttr).
With millions gardening during the pandemic, all major retailers triple-down on the Back to the Roots brand, which launches 92 U.S.-grown, organic seed varieties with The Home Depot.
As Back to the Roots juggles cash flow and growth with needing to order seeds two years out, they close a $15 million funding round. Walmart awards them its highest sustainability certification for upcycling waste, optimizing packaging, and using sustainable materials in manufacturing.
Consumers will spend $100M on Back to the Roots organic gardening products.