“Michael Pollan has been the North Star of articulating the concepts that shaped Back to the Roots.”
—Nikhil Arora, UC Berkeley alum and co-founder of Oakland-based organic garden-kit company Back to the Roots
When UC Berkeley grads Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez were getting their start farming and growing mushrooms in an Oakland warehouse, they made a connection at a farmer’s market that changed everything—and demonstrated the magical serendipity of what Nikhil calls “the Berkeley ecosystem.”
“Someone we met at the market said, ‘hey, can I bring a friend over to see your warehouse sometime? He’s really into mushrooms.’ We said sure,” Nikhil recounts.
That mushroom-enthusiast friend turned out to be famed nature and culture writer (and UCB professor) Michael Pollan, who showed up for a warehouse tour a few days later.
Impressed by the drive and ingenuity of the two young men, who’d both chucked away corporate futures to get their hands dirty, Pollan became an early mentor to the Back to the Roots duo, as well as a dear friend.
Eight years and millions of nationally distributed indoor gardening kits later, Back to the Roots is still true to its core mission of connecting people—particularly kids—to where their food comes from, no matter how small, concrete-covered, or urban their living space. And they still take their inspiration from the ideas and insights they’ve found in groundbreaking books, Michael’s among them.
“We joke that our brand is basically ‘we make products out of Michael’s writings,'” says Nikhil. “We credit Michael with so much; he’s been the North Star of articulating the concepts that shaped Back to the Roots.”
Several months ago, Michael sent the two friends an email with a fervent recommendation. “He told us, you have to read this book,” Nikhil remembers. The book in question? Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds, and Shape our Futures.
Nikhil and Alejandro were instantly smitten.
“You can’t read that book and not be curious and full of wonder,” Nikhil says. “Merlin takes this incredibly complex world, this complicated mushroom kingdom, and makes it exciting and accessible for everyone. We can’t wait to see him and Michael bounce ideas off each other in real time.”
Talk about the magic of the Berkeley ecosystem: when the Book Fest reached out to Back to the Roots to discuss partnering for our July 7 event with Michael and Merlin, that’s when we learned that Michael was a dear friend of theirs. And when we told Michael we’d connected with the self-made UCB entrepreneurs, he was thrilled.
The fruit of this serendipitous and oh-so-entangled collaboration? A little piece of magic that’s delicious, educational, and 100% Guaranteed to Grow. Every ticket-buyer to UNBOUND’s “Entangled Life” live event can receive Back to the Roots’ most popular product: an Organic Mushroom Grow Kit with a STEM Mycology Curriculum (a $25 value for only $9.99). Get yours before the limited supply is gone!
That Berkeley Magic
For Nikhil and Alejandro, the road to success was paved with hard work and commitment, but also included a healthy sprinkling of exactly the kind of chance meetings and fateful entanglements that led Michael Pollan to knock on their warehouse door years ago. It all began in a UCB lecture hall, where a business ethics professor off-handedly mentioned that mushrooms can be grown from coffee grounds.
Although Nikhil and Alejandro barely knew each other at the time, they were both in that class. Separately, they approached the professor to ask for elaboration on this intriguing nugget of information. The professor connected the two, and the rest is history.
For Nikhil and Alejandro, both of whom were on a straight track to the corporate world before being beautifully sidetracked by fungi, this unwittingly mutual “aha” moment crystallized their sense of purpose and merged their paths.
“It was one of those moments where your whole life’s journey culminates in a single second,” Nikhil says. “We didn’t know each other, but that professor’s comment struck us both, for reasons that had to do with our life experiences and our pasts. Alex grew up in Colombia, immersed in coffee culture. And I’d just spent six months in Ghana, working on recycling and sustainability initiatives. So we both felt a connection to that idea.”
The two soon teamed up, and started experimentally trying to grow mushrooms out of coffee grounds in their dorm. Once their experiment began to bear fruit, they had a classic “Berkeley ecosystem” encounter with another homegrown icon, slow-food pioneer (and friend of the Fest) Alice Waters, maven of the legendary Chez Panisse.
“Neither Alex and I were foodies,” Nikhil recounts with a laugh. “We were college kids eating at Subway. But when we grew that first crop of mushrooms in our dorm, we needed to know if they were good! We asked each other, ok, what’s the best restaurant in town? And everyone told us it was Chez Panisse, which happened to be right near campus. Of course we’d never eaten there, but everyone knew it by reputation. So we literally walked right into Chez Panisse one day with a paint bucket full of mushrooms. Alice happened to be there at the time. She saw our UCB shirts and decided to give us the time of day, bringing us back into the kitchen to meet her master chef, who sautéed these things up right then and there and sampled them. He said, these are actually really good.
Since those early days, Nikhil and Alex have expanded their expertise far beyond mushrooms: Back to the Roots, which sold over a million gardening kits last year, offers grow-it-yourself herbs, microgreens, tomatoes, flowers, and more, with the motto “No Backyard Required.”
“We know our kits won’t replace the farmer’s market,” Nikhil says. “But we want to be the brand that sparks that curiosity about where food comes from, that builds awareness and helps people discover the joy of gardening, no matter where you live.”
Back to the Roots is definitely sparking curiosity among the very demographic they’d hoped to reach: kids, especially those who live in areas where green space is few and far between.
The company’s Grow One, Give One Campaign donates a free organic grow kit and STEM curriculum to an elementary school chosen by each customer who shares a picture of their Back to the Roots garden on social media. Even Nikhil was astounded by the demand and enthusiasm from teachers and students.
“Seeing the feedback from teachers and kids, who are integrating these kits into their curriculum as classroom activities, is amazing,” he says. “It initially began when we solicited ideas from teachers on how they want to use our kits in their classrooms. We expected a few hundred responses. Instead, we got over 35,000 emails, not just a sentence or two, but full-length essays from teachers on how they wanted to turn these kits into classroom projects. It was beautiful.”
Ingenuity and ethics are key to Back Back to the Roots’ phenomenal success, but another essential ingredient that’s enabled the company to thrive is exactly what Nikhil and Alex want to instill in every backyard-deprived, green-thumbed consumer: a never-ending sense of wonder and possibility.
That unchecked sense of always learning, always evolving, is evident in the way Nikhil talks about the miraculous organism that seeded his and Alex’s journey: fungi.
“It’s a whole kingdom that’s been barely researched,” he says. “Honestly, the magic of mushrooms is in the breadth of applications and their versatility. We are so inspired by how over just the last ten years, mushrooms have already began to totally reshape so many massive industries ranging from clothing (leather made from mycelium), to packaging (styrofoam replacement made out of mycelium), to being used to clean up oil and nuclear spills, to becoming the foundation for the new plant-based meat movement, to serving as a tool for therapists to help folks with diseases of the mind, to serving as amazing nutritional supplements to boost the immune system… and we’re just getting started!”
How does Nikhil recommend you get started (besides securing your own Mushroom Grow Kit at significant discount with your “Entangled Life” ticket, of course)? Watching “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World,” the TED Talk by Paul Stamets (a huge inspiration to both Pollan and Sheldrake) that opened his eyes to the magic of the fungi kingdom.
On behalf of BTTR and Bay Area Book Festival, happy growing!