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.