Changing the World One Mushroom at a Time

Nikil Arora proudly shows off the oyster mushroom kit he helped develop

If you’ve ever doubted the power of education to inspire, just consider University of California at Berkeley grads, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez.

Classmates at the Hass School of Business, Arora, 24 and Velez, 23, were on their way to lucrative careers in investment banking and business consulting after graduating two years ago. But they turned their backs on that after listening to a visiting lecturer talk about how poor, malnourished women in Columbia and East Africa were growing mushrooms in coffee grounds to supplement their diet.

Instead, they maxed out their credit cards to start their own business. Their Oakland-based Back to the Roots turns mountains of discarded Peet’s coffee grounds that would have ended up in the landfill into gourmet oyster mushroom kits now sold at Whole Foods and on the Back to the Roots Web site for $19.95 each.

Mushroom kits in their special display case can be found in all Whole Foods.

In the process, Arora and Velez have created an innovative enterprise that even prompted Business Week to name them among the most promising social entrepreneurs in the United States.

Indeed, they now employ 14 people, many of whom were hired specifically because they are parents who have been unemployed at least six months.

Back to the Roots reuses 20,000 pounds of discarded Peet's coffee grounds a week.

In the bag on the left, the mushroom spawns are just starting to grow iin the coffee grounds. In the bag on the right, they are ready to start producing mushrooms.

The kits couldn’t be easier to use. Open the flap on the box, cut open the plastic bag and mist the coffee grounds twice daily with water. In about 10 days, you’ll have a pound of oyster mushrooms to enjoy. Flip the box over. Repeat process. And you’ll get another crop. Afterward, the grounds can be used in your backyard soil to make your garden flourish.

After a few days of repeated misting, mushrooms begin to sprout.

In about 10 days, mushrooms are ready to be enjoyed.

Learn more about Arora and Velez in my story in this month’s Oakland and Alameda magazines.

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