Office of Public Engagement

An Idea that Mushroomed into a Movement

Looking back at 2011, it's clear that one of the most rewarding parts of working on the White House Business Council has been meeting innovative, inspiring small business owners from across the country, Americans who are working hard to create jobs and opportunities in their own communities. This week we are highlighting a few of their stories.

Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez were on their way, college seniors slated to graduate from UC Berkeley and take up jobs in investment banking and consulting, respectively. At least until their business ethics professor told them that gourmet mushrooms could be grown on 100 percent recycled coffee grounds. Arora and Velez were intrigued, they became friends, and ultimately business partners and entrepreneurs. 

After much experimentation and testing, Arora and Velez developed a system ideal for growing gourmet mushrooms out of recycled coffee grounds. Once they got the stamp of approval from a renowned chef – who proclaimed their mushrooms “delicious” – Back to the Roots was born in 2009. Arora and Velez began with fresh gourmet mushrooms, supplying about 500 pounds  per week to Whole Foods and other grocers across Northern California. But as friends and customers started asking how they could grow their own mushrooms at home, Arora and Velez shifted their business model. Back to the Roots developed its Grow-Your-Own Mushroom Garden, a kit that allows customers to sustainably grow their own gourmet mushrooms at home in just a few days. 

The kit has been a recipe for success. Back to the Roots now employs 19 people, each committed to bringing local, sustainable food to everyone across the country.  They  work with Peet’s Coffee in the Bay Area and are on pace this year to divert 1 million pounds of coffee grind waste from the landfill to ge used as a soil for their mushrooms. Their production is 100 percent sustainable and they accomplished their growth without any venture capital or equity funding. If Congress passes the President's plan to create jobs, the included initiatives will help propel them even further, Arora says. “It will give us confidence to continue to invest  and hire new team members. Also, the additional TANF funding subsidizing the training period for employees we hire through "CalWorks" will help us continue to bring on board those in our community most in need of work."

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