FOUNDER PROFILE: Vasiliki Papanikolopoulos (Penn16)
MEET VASILIKI PAPNIKOLOPOULOS, CHAMPION FOR SMALL BUSINESSES
“In a world dominated by tech investments, it’s encouraging to see how often it is small businesses that actually dominate our conversations.”
Vasiliki Papanikolopoulos (Penn16) is the Founder of Coimatan, a Minnesota-based think tank and incubator that focuses on local retail. While living in Philadelphia Vasiliki watched an ever-changing main street on her everyday commute and understood the importance of independent retail to the local community. Upon returning to the Twin Cities, as brick-and-mortar shops shut down at the onset of the pandemic, Vasiliki envisioned a forum where small businesses could use their collective power for good.
Coimatan, where Vasiliki also serves as Creative Director, works at the intersection of social, environmental, and economic impact to co-create products and experiences in the retail and culinary space. This includes revitalizing and reactivating local Main Streets, guiding local businesses in growing with nontraditional approaches and making interdisciplinary connections across ecosystems within emerging hubs. Most recently, the team is working on the launch of a Small Business Job Board — a place where people, place and purpose connect.
Prior to founding Coimatan, Vasiliki was part of an Italian-based innovation program for companies focused on social and environmental goals. She began her career at GSK, where she held a lead role designing and launching an enterprise-wide business transformation project.
Tell us a bit about your company
Coimatan is a think tank for local retail, working at the intersection of social, environmental, and economic impact to co-create products and experiences in the retail and culinary space.
What inspired you to start your business — what opportunity in the market are you seeking to address?
Living and commuting within a slowly vacating city center was what inspired me to start Coimatan. I came to understand how commerce shapes our communities. Small businesses generate 44% of the economy yet they account for 99% of the businesses in the U.S. At Coimatan, we believe in creating unconventional opportunities for connection between small businesses and consumers. This philosophy has led us to work with institutions like the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the American Craft Council to test brand activations within their spaces as well as to build resources like a gift card platform and a small business job board.
What is it about your personal background, experience, or perspective that fuels your passion for this venture?
Small retail and culinary businesses have played a large part in shaping who I am and what I believe in — it’s this love and vision for how they can positively impact our world that shape Coimatan.
What are one or two of the biggest wins or most encouraging experiences you’ve had so far?
In a world dominated by tech investments, it’s encouraging to see how often it is small businesses that actually dominate our conversations. When the pandemic hit, we felt a nostalgia for all our favorite restaurants and shops that closed down and when gas prices spiked, we started discussing the value of main streets. Although the small business economy isn’t as hot a topic as tech, it has demonstrated an equal if not greater social, environmental, and economic opportunity for scalability and impact.
What has been one or two of your biggest learnings so far?
Although I’m a big believer in collaboration, I’ve learned the hard way to communicate expectations and negotiate terms.
What surprises have you encountered as an entrepreneur? Something out of left field?
Since starting Coimatan, I’ve surprisingly been most fascinated by government policies and initiatives and how those influence the small business economy. On the one hand, it’s been eye-opening to see how favorable infrastructure is to corporations with regards to competitive employer benefits packages as well as consumer-facing pricing efficiencies. On the other hand, there is an admirable effort to provide grants and loans to spur local and sustainable economic growth.
At Coimatan, one of our goals is making impactful cross-industry connections to bring about positive change and so we are raising awareness about these policies through a partnership with Main Street Alliance as well as working closely with county and city officials to support their zero-waste and social impact goals.