In 2009, Alejandro Velez had overcome a lot of obstacles to get where he was. The then senior at UC Berkeley had survived being kidnapped by terrorists while growing up in Medellín, Colombia, had beaten cancer and was just a few months away from beginning a lucrative career on Wall Street.
Then an off-hand remark by a professor changed everything.
“During a lecture, the professor brought up the fact that you could potentially grow mushrooms on coffee waste and for some odd reason I latched onto this idea,” Velez, 29, tells PEOPLE.
After class, the finance major approached his professor and asked for more information. The professor said it was just something he had read about, but offered to put Velez in touch with another student, Nikhil Arora, who had asked him the same thing.
A lifelong partnership was born. After watching a few hours of how-to videos on YouTube, Velez and Arora planted mushroom spawn in 10 buckets of used coffee grounds — one of which successfully grew mushrooms.
It wasn’t the best success rate, but it was enough for both young men to give up corporate job offers and pursue their new dream of making sustainable urban farming accessible to anyone.
Eight years later, company that they built around this idea, Back to the Roots, has raised millions in funding and its 18 products — from home gardening kits to organic packaged food — can be found in retailers and schools around the country.
A big risk
The young men’s path to success wasn’t always clear. After giving up stable career opportunities (Velez had secured a position on Wall Street and Arora had a signed offer to join a consulting firm) it seemed to many outside the project that the pair had bet their futures on a pipe dream.
“I wish I could say we were always confident in the idea, but for the first few years so many people told us over and over that we made the wrong decision,” Velez recalls.
Velez says he was able to forge ahead despite the likelihood of failure thanks to all that he overcame as a child.
“When you’ve had things in your life that pushed you to extremes that you didn’t think you’ll survive, you get a sense of calm that comes with moments of fear,” he says.
A time of terror
The first extreme came when 8-year-old Velez and his grandparents were taken hostage by FARC, a guerrilla group that engaged in a bloody conflict with the Colombian government that lasted 53 years and killed more than 220,000 people.
As Velez recalls, he and his grandparents were driving down a street in Medellín when they encountered a roadblock where FARC soldiers were pulling motorists from their cars.
“They took about 100 of us and burned a lot of cars and killed a few people to make a statement,” he says. “They were planning to use us as human shields but the army never came. We were so lucky.”
Velez and the other survivors were released the following day, but his family continued to be haunted by the widespread violence.
A new start
After two of Velez’s uncles were murdered, his mom, Ana, married a U.S. Marine and moved Velez and his older brother Daniel to a small town called Paw Paw, Michigan.
“I was the only Hispanic kid in my entire school and I spoke zero English,” Velez says of immigrating to the U.S. at age 11. “But still, the people in that tiny town were so welcoming.”
Velez recalls the early days were difficult as his mom, an engineer who left Colombia with $5,000 to her name, had to start from the bottom to build a new career.
“My mom got way lower pay than she should have but she just put her head down and worked,” Velez says. “All our clothes were from Goodwill, but we always had food on the table.”
Soon enough, Velez Daniel had learned English and were excelling in academics and sports.
A devastating diagnosis
Then, when Velez was 15, a doctor treating him for a soccer injury discovered a lump in his armpit. It turned out to be Stage II Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“When you hear those words, ‘You have cancer,’ you feel so lonely,” Velez says. “You don’t know where to turn to.”
Ten days later, Velez began four months of chemotherapy. Throughout these treatments, he says he felt far from alone.
“The nurses were the most selfless humans I’ve ever met,” he says.
When the chemo caused Velez to lose his hair, his entire basketball team shaved their heads in solidarity.
“My entire school, made prayer chains for me,” he says. “I had so much love.”
The following year, Velez’s cancer went in to remission and he returned to school and athletics — ultimately earning a spot on the UC Berkeley men’s tennis team.
A shared vision
During his senior year at Cal, he met his future business partner Arora and discovered their shared passion for growing food from waste.
“I could tell right away that even at 21 years old, everything for Nikhail was about leaving a positive legacy,” Velez says.
There was no question he wanted to do the same. After growing their first mushrooms, the new partners brought their sole successful bucket to their local Whole Foods where the chain’s regional produce buyer took a liking to their unusual cultivation method.
“That moment really changed our lives forever. We gave up our job offers and went from there,” Velez says.
After a few bumps in the road, their mushrooms, and soon mushroom growing kits, took off. In 2012, business was so good that Velez felt comfortable taking a few weeks off. He used this time to appear on Emily Maynard‘s season of The Bachelorette in what he sums up as “the most ridiculous experience of my life.”
While Velez didn’t find love on The Bachelorette, he did gain great exposure for Back to the Roots’ products thanks to viewers who were intrigued by his title of “mushroom farmer.”
A tragic loss
Then in 2014, tragedy struck once again when Velez’s brother Daniel, a successful Los Angeles casting director, fell off of his apartment’s balcony and died at age 30.
“It was a huge shock and of all the things that have happened in my life this by far is the one that cannot be explained with words,” he says, “Losing a brother and watching your mother lose a son is incredibly tough.”
The aftermath of this freak accident made it feel impossible to keep going, but Velez somehow found a way to do just that.
“I like to think he’s with me and when I’m doing things he’s doing them too,” he says. “In situations like that you owe it to yourself and the world to get up and try to do something.”
A purpose-driven life
Velez says he feels fortunate to have a job that gives his life meaning and drove him to get back up when it didn’t feel possible.
As Back to the Roots has grown (they now make 18 products), its social enterprises have grown too. Last year, the company launched a partnership with food service giant Sodexo to bring their healthy foods to K-12 schools.
Velez takes the most pride in donating the company’s growing kits and their self-cleaning fish tanks that grow organic sprouts for use in the classroom. For every picture featuring a Back to the Roots product that is posted to social media, the company donates one product to an elementary school. He hopes these kits will inspire students in the same way that one professor’s remark inspired him.
“If we can inspire one kid who would have never ever grown mushrooms off of waste or grown herbs off of fish poop then it’s all worth it,” Velez says. “Who wouldn’t want to wake up knowing they’ve done that? That’s worth getting out of bed for every single morning.”