Making repairs and negotiating deals comes naturally to 14-year-old Jerome Smalls.
The Zucker Middle School eighth-grader learned how to fix things from his grandfather, Papa, who's made a career in construction- related jobs, and Smalls' knack for business is innate.
He combined the two skills to launch a business, The Handykid, and he spent most of last summer doing odd jobs for his North Charleston neighbors and family friends.
He's done so well that he's been named state Entrepreneur of the Year for Yes! Carolina, a nonprofit group dedicated to teaching youths about entrepreneurship. He'll represent South Carolina this spring during an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City, where he'll be honored by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a program partner of Yes! Carolina.
"I've never been there," Smalls said. "I can't wait."
His Handykid business has fallen off since last summer, but that's understandable given his straight A's, honors classes and extracurricular activities that include student council, basketball, yearbook and LEGO team.
Smalls is the kind of kid who somehow manages to do it all, despite circumstances that would've derailed many others.
He's lived with his grandparents since he was 3, and they have been his primary caregivers. They instilled in him a strong work ethic and the idea that he shouldn't expect anything for free. His grandfather thought it was good for him to learn to be handy because he could always fall back on those skills, and Smalls was an eager student. He tagged along when his grandfather went to construction sites, and by the time he was 8, he was doing little jobs, such as covering nailheads with drywall mud.
"He wasn't great at it, but we let him do it anyway," Stewart said with a laugh.
As he grew older and learned more, Smalls started doing more work, mostly for his neighbors. He planted flowers, cut lawns and cleaned gutters, and last summer, he signed up for a three-week camp where students learned how to create and run a business.
When it finished, he had a detailed business plan for The Handykid, including a job fee that varied depending on the work required and competitors' prices.
His hobby soon became a full-throttle job. His aunt connected him with a man who renovated and sold homes, and Smalls painted, replaced doorknobs, and swapped light fixtures. He expanded his work in the neighborhood and stayed busy until school started in August.
"I didn't know he'd go this far," Stewart said. "He's always trying to tell me how to do my business. He says, 'You've got to work smarter, not harder.'"
Jenny Whittle, Smalls' teacher for the summer camp, said Smalls had a better grasp on the information she presented than some of the teachers she's instructed. He spent a lot of his own time working on his business plan, even staying up late one night to create a brochure before anyone else in the class.
"The other kids were wonderful, but he was just five steps ahead of them in terms of interest and enthusiasm and really grasping the material," she said. "It wasn't about the money. It was just that he really enjoyed working and having something to do that was positive in his neighborhood. He's amazing."
Smalls plans to spend this coming summer operating his business, but he's unsure what he wants to do as a career. He still plans to do odd jobs around his home, but he'll probably give his grandparents a deal and do it for free.
Reach Diette Courrégé at 937-5546.