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Chicago Tribune - "Hillcrest senior’s Heartless clothing brand taking off, and it’s no surprise to those who know him"

By Janice Neumann

Daily Southtown

Jaqueza Thomas, a senior at Hillcrest High School in Country Club Hills, wears a hoodie with a logo designed for his Heartless online clothing store. Thomas started the business two years ago. ( Jaqueza Thomas)

Sorrow over his murdered cousin still runs deep for Jaqueza Thomas, but this 17-year-old has managed to channel his grief into a creative business venture that is reaching other youth.

It started at the beginning of the pandemic, when Thomas, now a senior at Hillcrest High School in Country Club Hills, was 15 and his older cousin was shot dead. He had been close to his cousin, seeing him often during visits at his grandmother’s home.

“When they took him away from me, I was really hurt,” said Thomas, who lives in Chicago.

Thomas, an aspiring entrepreneur since childhood, had been brainstorming ideas for a clothing business. He also wanted his brand to offer a positive message

The gun violence that took his family member could have changed those plans for the better or worse.

“I was at home and dealing with this mental health issue, dealing with the death of my cousin,” Thomas said. “I wanted to do something in honor of him.”

That hurt transformed into “Heartless,” an online clothing and apparel store he started at, where he designs and sells T-shirts, hoodies, masks, jogger clothes, jeans and bomber jackets.

“I made this brand to make people feel good within themselves, to let people know it’s OK to show people how you really feel,” Thomas wrote on the website where he sells his branded clothing.

His mother helped him get started, applying for limited liability company status and a business bank account.

Thomas had already taken business classes at Hillcrest, including introduction to business and entrepreneurship, where he created a nonprofit for kids his age among other projects. Outside of school, he worked on starting his own business.

Steven Ramel, his business teacher, said Thomas’s knack for entrepreneurship was evident early on.

“I could see the actual business intelligence was there,” Ramel said. “He knew what he wanted to do, he had a plan and he followed it through. Pretty good for a junior in high school.”

Other students have generated good ideas, but not the follow-through, he said.

“It’s unusual to get it going,” Ramel said. “They may have the idea and ambition but their studies get in the way. He already had the foundation in his mind of what he wanted to do in his life and it was just a matter of implementing.”

There was also his inquiring mind.

“I can think of numerous times in class where he might not have known something, but he would either come and ask me questions or he would ask for the resources of people who might know those answers,” Ramel said. “You don’t see a whole heck of a lot of kids doing that.”

Thomas has presented his business and the life lessons that helped build it to his class and at a faculty meeting.

“I think kids were inspired and in awe of what he was doing,” Ramel said.

That’s the kind of influence Thomas said he wants to have on entrepreneurs even younger than himself. He has given business advice to students at his high school and the elementary school he attended in Chicago.

“Every time another young person reaches out to me for help, it motivates me to keep going,” Thomas said. “Older people will call me and say, ‘keep doing what you’re doing … not just in Chicago or in the suburbs but in other states.’”

Sometimes it’s overwhelming, he said.

“Who would have thought that me starting this at 15, older people or younger people would be coming to me asking how you do this?” Thomas said. “I really love that. I get emotional.”

He manages to stay on course, despite his busy schedule. Besides running his business, he’s involved with U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly’s Congressional Youth Cabinet and the Chicago Police and Firefighter Training Academy. At school, he’s the vice president of the student council executive board, a member of the National Honor Society and maintaining a 4.5 GPA.

“When someone asks me how to start their own business, the first thing I ask is, ‘are you doing it for the money or is this something you truly want to do?’” said Thomas, whose goal is to be a community and business leader. “If you are passionate about having a business, you’ll be able to handle the stress that comes with having a business.”

Source: Chicago Tribune

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