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Urban Farmers and Young Entrepreneurs
How many business owners get a chance to discuss fiscal policy with the President of the United States at the White House? Not many. Nikhil Arora and Alex Velez had the opportunity in November of 2012, along with eleven other business owners. But how did they get to the level of success that merits an invitation to a tête-a-tête in the Roosevelt Room?
Back in 2009, Nikhil and Alex decided to forego lucrative careers in investment banking and consulting to become full-time, urban mushroom farmers. Classmates at UC Berkeley, the two were enchanted by the ability to grow gourmet mushrooms on recycled coffee grounds.
“We fell in love with this ‘waste-to-food’ model our last semester,” recalled Nikhil. “We started off with some test buckets in Alex's fraternity kitchen closet and a $5,000 grant from our Chancellor.”
Today that Oakland-based business is known as Back to the Roots and employs 15 employees. “Our vision is to connect families to food through fun and innovative products,” said Alex. “We want to inspire everyone to realize how fun and easy it can actually be to eat healthy and grow your own food.”
Back to the Roots connected with the Oakland Business Development Corporation (OBDC) through a referral from InnerCity Advisors. The young entrepreneurs received a $50,000 loan from OBDC in June, 2011 for working capital. OBDC participates in the SBA Microloan Program, helping small businesses gain access to capital.
“This microloan was critical for us to purchase tools and equipment used to manufacture thousands of mushroom kits in a short period of time! This loan was a huge step for us as it allowed us to increase production and meet the demands of our first holiday season with national distribution,” said Ed Rainey, Back to the Roots’ Director of Finance.
Back to the Roots has also made use of other alternative funding sources – most recently crowdfunding. When Alex and Nikhil chose to expand their product line beyond The Mushroom Kit to include AquaFarm, a self-cleaning fish tank that grows food, they sought $100,000 through a Kickstarter campaign,* but they defied even their own expectations by raising $248,000 in just 30 days. “It was an incredible way to finance the product (pay for the tooling/molds for the product), and get a really passionate, supportive initial user base who has provided us tremendously valuable feedback,” explained Nikhil.
Managing sustainable growth is now Back to the Roots greatest challenge. Alex and Nikhil believe they are up the task. They are mindful of everything from cash flow to inventory management. They continue to rely on their dual secret weapons: hustle and passion. Hustle and passion saw them through their startup phase, and now it will help them through their growth phase.
*Note: SBA is not affiliated or associated with Kickstarter, and SBA makes no representations or recommendations regarding their products or services.