Both are graduating from the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley to work at their new company, BTTR Ventures. The company grows specialty mushrooms from tons of coffee waste generated by java joints throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
BTTR (as in "better") stands for "back to the roots" and "encompasses the idea of creating a company that stands for sustainability, and progress, social responsibility," the two men say.
They launched the company on Earth Day with a press conference at their mushroom-growing facility in Oakland, Calif. Local coffee stores such as Starbucks, Peet's, and Tully's are among the participating suppliers of waste, and A&B Produce of South San Francisco, a large mushroom wholesaler, plans to partner with BTTR Ventures for sales and distribution.
I interviewed Velez, 21, and Arora, 22, just before their big Earth Day launch.
Question: How did you learn about growing mushrooms from coffee grounds?
Alex Velez: Nikhil and I have been doing substantial research on growing mushrooms and have been working closely with two expert mycologists, Chido Govero and Carmenza Jaramillo, from Zimbabwe and Colombia, respectively. We have also been testing our various methods on a smaller scale for many months to perfect the techniques that they have mastered over the past 15 years.
What made you want to turn this into a viable business?
A.V.: Nikhil and I truly believe that doing business and doing good do not have to be separate philosophies. We initially heard of this idea through fellow entrepreneur and close mentor, Gunter Pauli, who lectured at one of our classes. We believed in the potential of this idea to truly better our community, and create a profit. However, it wasn't until after a few weeks of brainstorming and in-depth due diligence that we were able to create this regionally based, locally operated, closed-loop, zero-waste business model.
Part of your company's mission is to "create urban jobs." How do you plan to do that, and where?
Nikhil Arora: As we expand production, we are looking to hire urban workers into green-collar jobs. This will include individuals collecting coffee waste, managing the production facility where the mushrooms grow, and distributing them to our regional customers. We are excited for the ability to turn a waste stream into a green-job creator in the Bay Area.
Part of your business model includes "giving back" to communities. How?
N.A.: We want to reinvest a substantial amount of our profits back into the community from which the waste, jobs, and customers come from. Our plan is to donate 10% of our profits to organizations that focus on empowering?the local inner-city youth through mentorship programs.
The Class of 2009 faces a tough job market, but the climate is also tough for new businesses. What gives you confidence that BTTR Ventures can thrive in this economy?
N.A.: I think this economy gives us the best chance to start such a company. It's clear that businesses operating with the sole mindset of profits, without any concern for their surrounding communities and environment, got us into this economic mess. Customers are looking to support companies during these tough times that operate with integrity, respect, and a desire to uplift their communities. That's why we think BTTR Ventures can succeed: we're offering a quality product with an environmentally focused model.
What practical advice would you give to potential entrepreneurs who might have a novel idea for starting a business?
N.A.: Beyond all else, you have to pursue opportunities that pull at your heart. You have to believe 100% in your product, your mission, and your long-term vision for the company. If you're passionate about your idea, all the other work — the nitty-gritty of starting a company — doesn't seem so challenging anymore.