Alejandro Velez profile picture

Alejandro Velez (“Alex”)

Co-Founder (with Nikhil Arora - "Nik") Back to the Roots

What’s the background to the business?
I was a Finance Major at Berkeley and had never even thought about mushrooms, or anything to do with food, before. In a lecture one day, the professor mentioned as almost a throw-away fact that mushrooms can be grown in recycled coffee grounds. I was fascinated by this concept and wanted to know more about it. When I asked the professor about it, he told me that another student had asked the same question and he suggested that we get together. That other student was, of course, Nik, who I didn’t know at the time. Well, we started talking about it and decided to set up an experiment to see what would happen. We went to our local Peet’s and asked them for their used coffee grounds. We set up a few crates of grounds and injected each one with a different level of mycelium. We then left them behind in the lab as we went off for spring break. When we returned, we saw a wonderful group of pearl mushrooms growing in one of the crates. We quickly put together some more crates and, when we had enough mushrooms at one time, we took them to Chez Panisse in Berkeley to see if they were really as good as we thought they were. The chefs cooked up the mushrooms right there and declared them “excellent.” In fact, Chez Panisse was so impressed with the taste of the mushrooms, they placed a daily order. From there we went to Whole Foods, and their buyers were equally enthusiastic, so we were given the opportunity to sell in some of their stores. Suddenly we were in the food business!

BUSINESS BRIEFING

Business goal for the next 12 months: We have just negotiated with Home Depot to make our Back to the Roots mushroom growing boxes available at 400 stores on the east coast.

In the first quarter of 2013, we plan to launch a new product – an Aquaponics system. This is an Ancient Mayan model of sustainable gardening whereby fish waste feeds plants, and oxygen from the plants is returned into the water. In our system, we will be growing baby greens. Nik and I want to promote the idea that food is personal – that is, that food, through the personal contact of growing it, nurturing it, and eating it, is something to respect. With this as our overarching idea, we would like to make Back to the Roots “the brand” for wholesome and sustainable food.

Advice you wish you had received Keep focused on what it is you want to achieve. While advice is great, I do think that the errors and detours we have made have enabled us to learn a great deal about ourselves and about the business, so I think that we have benefitted from any mistakes by turning them into positives and moving on.

Best business decision: Partnering with Nik – definitely!

Another great business decision that we made together is to build our company as a family. Family is very important to us both. Everyone in our company (about 30 employees) works together just as in a family and we are all accountable for our activities and decisions. It’s a great atmosphere here – we share a passion for what we’re doing and we have a lot of fun.

Toughest business decision: Letting go of people who we like and care about, but who are unable to assume the appropriate responsibilities when required and who we know cannot grow with the business. It’s definitely the toughest part of the business.

Person most admired: On a day-to-day basis, the person I most admire is Nik.

Like most about job: I feel like a little kid in a big kid’s shoes! Every day brings new challenges, but I like the way we all pull together to find the best way to deal with them.

Like least about job: Well, the same is true – I feel like a little kid in a big kid’s shoes! And that sometimes means I have to do things that I don’t really want to do. Certainly, as I’ve said, the hardest part of the job is to let people go if it doesn’t work out.

Dream job: I have it! I get to work with people I admire and enjoy being with and I get to meet interesting people every day. With all that we have in place, I am able to make life and work happen in a way that is good for me, my family, and my community. I believe that you can do anything you want if you decide to do it – and I’m doing it!

BEHIND THE SUIT

Birthplace: Colombia, South America

Education: Berkeley

Favorite book: It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, by Lance Armstrong, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garc’a Márquez.

Favorite movie: Crash.

Outside of work: I like to work out and I love being outdoors. I used to play on the Berkeley tennis team and still play now.

I had a lot of fun this summer when I was in Stratford, England and had the chance to play Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.

Community: We set up the One-for-One campaign whereby, if someone posts a picture on our Facebook page of themselves with their mushrooms, we donate a box to a local school. Children are very excited watching food grow. We believe that if children understand how food grows then it becomes more personal and more important to them – they will respect it.

I also recently set up the Sage Mentorship Program and both Nik and I sit on the Board. It’s a program whereby a Berkeley student partners with an underprivileged schoolchild to help them in their academic life. Our motto is “Real relations, real connections, real life.”

Family: I come from a very close family. We both do. See, we have pictures of our mothers above our desks! My stepfather is our Distribution Manager. I value family highly. And, as a cancer survivor (I had cancer at 15 years old), I really value health too. Yes, I would say that I value family and health above all else.