How Curiosity Around Coffee Grounds Turned Into a Thriving Business: LinkedIn Speaker Series with Alex Velez

August 7, 2015

Back to the Roots LinkedIn Speaker Series

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Alejandro Velez speak at the LinkedIn Speaker Series about his company, Back to the Roots, a start-up focused on bringing sustainable, organic foods to America’s household. Not only was I excited to meet someone who shared the same college alma mater as me, but to hear how someone turned their curiosity into a thriving business.

With a bright smile and cheerful charisma, Alex spoke about how he and his co-founder, Nikhil Arora, veered into their start-up world in a very unusual way. It started in a business ethics class at UC Berkeley. As classmates, both were intrigued when their college professor had mentioned that there was a way to grow mushrooms out of coffee grounds, which happens to be America’s largest, urban street waste. Realizing their similar interests, their professor connected the two students and their curiosity spiked. They voraciously consumed any articles or videos they could get their hands on and soon learned enough to test the theory in Alejandro’s fraternity kitchen. This particular experience produced a single, beautiful crop of mushrooms in which they toted to some of one of the world’s best restaurants and a major retailer, where they were told they had promise.

The entire process triggered a new perspective and path for both Alex and Nikhil. They were just a few months shy of graduating and had full time offers into consulting and investment banking. But with the success of their initial meetings, they believed they could expand their mushroom farming into an expanded product line stocked at major grocers and retailers. And with passion and persistence, they did just that. Fast forward six years and their “ready-to-grow” mushroom, basil and cilantro kits have hit shelf space at 14,000 stores, which include some of the biggest names like Target and Whole Foods.

What started out as a piece of interesting information transformed into an entire company, all thanks to a little curiosity and not being afraid to raise your hand. After hearing Alex speak, I took away a few key learnings that not only apply to my professional life here at LinkedIn, but also in my personal life.

Relationships Matter

Often times, people come into our lives unexpectedly and go floating by without a second thought. However, it’s the importance of not being afraid to raise your hand and embracing new people that can be the foundation of a great relationship, not to mention something quite rewarding. Alex and his cofounder met unexpectedly after their professors connected them and realized they had mutual interests. We at LinkedIn are constantly meeting new people, whether they are clients, a new coworker or someone at lunch. Although it may not always be a fast “AHA” moment, these relationships are the foundation of the future.

Taking Intelligent Risks

Alex’s talk was packed with wisdom and encouragement to take intelligent risks, something that is core to us at LinkedIn. While it’s human to feel the day-to-day redundancy and there are times when it becomes scary to make that next step, Alex’s story reminds us that sometimes we don’t plan on our next adventure, it comes to us unexpectedly and it’s up to us to seize the opportunity.

You can watch Alex's entire LinkedIn Speaker Series below. Enjoy!

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