NEW YORK – Niko Kotoulas, like many young Greek-Americans, works hard to further realize the American dream of his immigrant parents. The New Jersey-native graduated from Johns Hopkins University and works for a well-known global investment bank where he had interned during his sophomore and junior years, all while thousands of followers online enjoy his music every day. The “piano man” and businessman Kotoulas also played basketball at Hopkins and was captain of the Men’s Varsity team. He spoke with The National Herald about his passion for music and business, his family, and his Hellenic pride.
Kotoulas told TNH, “I was always very academically motivated and motivated to be interested in business, and played basketball all through high school and college, so it was kind of difficult to put everything into music and even now, I’m still working. The thing is that I enjoy both, so business and finance, and then music are my driving passions.”
He continued, “My father is from Thessaloniki, Kozani and Polykastano is our horio, and my mom is split between Mytilene, where my Yiayia on her side is from and my Pappou is from Sparta, so it’s like the Greek triangle. A little flavor of everything, some of the islander, and the northern side as well. My mom was born in Melbourne, Australia, moved to Greece, and then to the States, and my father immigrated at age 15 to the US, so both of them did not grow up with much at all, and it’s a motivating factor in anything that I do in life to really push the limit. The American dream is exactly what they did, so it makes me want to take it to the next level.”
Kotoulas’ father, Tony, is an engineer and dancer with the Hellenic Dancers of New Jersey, his mother Helen manages Montessori schools. His sister, Agni, is a college sophomore who works in accounting, and plans to go to law school.
“I was very motivated to go strictly into finance and then I started doing music and other side businesses while in college, it was just another thing I was interested in, and now my music is my entrepreneurial activity,” he said.
Proud of his Greek heritage, Kotoulas was president of the Hellenic Students Association at Hopkins, and received a Hellenic Times scholarship. The 23 year-old will visit Greece this summer and work on another music project during his vacation, “a tribute to the homeland,” he said.
Kotoulas noted of his music, “You definitely get some criticism, and then the flip side is that you inspire thousands of people to play an instrument. I get emails and messages from fans in Brazil, India, the Philippines. With social media you can reach thousands and thousands of people. Combining all the social media platforms, I think there are over 150,000 followers and 5 million plays and views now, and I’ve been taking it very seriously since I graduated college. Music and work are my focuses right now. I also love it, but when people say ‘I used to play an instrument and when I saw your video I was inspired to play again’ or ‘My mother was sick in the hospital and I played your music for her in her last days and she was at peace,’ I mean, where do you find satisfaction like that?”
Kotoulas’ favorites include Dimitris Mitropanos, Paschalis Terzis, and pianist and composer Yanni, whose work inspired Kotoulas’ own composition, Dreams which can be viewed on Youtube.
He said, “When I was growing up, I was exposed to every kind of Greek music, to all of Europe basically, and Eurovision. Then, in the church (St. Andrew in Randolph, NJ) I was active in the choir and in GOYA, we had our GOYA band… I composed Dreams on the basis of my dream of music going back to my parents’ dream to get to the United States for a better life.”
At age 2, Kotoulas began “with a little tiny kid piano.”
“I heard something on the radio and started playing the melody line, so my parents were convinced that I needed lessons. I had a great piano teacher up until about 16 because sports took off and by then I had the foundation to perform.”
“Sometimes it’s tough doing both [business and music] but at the same time it’s a great opportunity to work for a global investment bank and learn from leaders who are doing really big things in the world… so I’m just very thankful. Every day I wake up and if I’m exhausted I’ll say, you know, I’m alive, I’m healthy, there’s no problems, that’s my attitude.”
He plans to spend more time giving back. “You want to have an impact, you want to move towards something greater,” Kotoulas said.
“Music is something that can have a profound impact, teaching kids how to play, or providing instruments for underprivileged kids, providing orphans with music, that impact at a young age will change a person’s life.”