Nailing It

Camille Heltman Is Living Her Lifelong Dream as a Handywoman

"I can do everything a handyman would do. There’s just not a word for a handywoman in the dictionary.” 

By Megan McDonald June 25, 2024 Published in the July-August 2024 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Camille Heltman
Camille Heltman

Image: Alan Cresto

Some people know exactly what they want to do with their lives at a young age. Camille Heltman, the 62-year-old owner of Princess Repairs, is one of them. As a kid, she was fascinated by carpentry and construction. When she was 14, she even went as far as to build a houseboat out of wood that floated in a lake near her Massachusetts home. “Kids would bring me two-by-fours,” she says. “It was 7 feet high.”

The boat eventually sank, but Heltman’s desire to build and fix things just kept growing. “In high school, you could take home-ec or shop class,” she says. “No girls ever took shop, but I did.”

After high school, Heltman wanted to go to a trade school, but chose a more traditional career path, earning a degree in business management and marketing instead. For years, she worked as an efficiency expert for banks, helping to streamline data and processes and reduce operating costs. But when she turned 40, she decided to take stock of her life and career. “I asked myself, ‘If you could do anything and money was no object, what would you do?’” she says.

The answer was to go back to trade school. Heltman had made some money in the stock market and real estate, and she decided to quit her job and pursue her old dream. She researched trade schools and landed on one in Rhode Island that had everything she wanted: HVAC, plumbing, electric, carpentry. Heltman was the only woman in the class, and she and her classmates would pick up discarded dishwashers and washing machines from the street, repair them and give them to people in need.

“I loved every minute of it,” she says.

After graduating and becoming licensed, Heltman founded her own company in Rhode Island. She began getting calls from friends and friends of friends, and soon built a devoted clientele. Eager to learn more, she moved to Florida in 2004 to apprentice with a finish carpenter she had met who worked with clients in Sarasota. She went on to do stints at a plumbing company, got her real estate license, bought a Rhode Island-based potato chip business that she runs during the sweltering Florida summers and, eventually, started Princess Repairs during the pandemic, working under her husband’s general contracting license as a handywoman. She rolls up to jobs in a hot pink SUV with Princess Repairs’ info emblazoned on the side.

Heltman says there’s a built-in trust that comes with being a woman in her field. “People warm up to me and tell me their whole life story,” she says. “I’m like a therapist. I’ve fixed 10 million things and have all these new friends. It makes me feel good, and I have someone else who’s going to call me and refer me to their network.”

But being a woman in a male-dominated field isn’t always a cake walk. Just like in trade school, Heltman is often the only woman on a job site. When she worked at the plumbing company, the other workers on the job—all men—immediately made assumptions about her sexuality and her skill set and had no problem telling her so, often in vulgar terms.

Figuring out how to price her work has been a mental tug-of-war, too. “I worry about charging someone too much, but then I see what other people, who are not very good, charge,” she says. She often finds herself doing extra work for free, even though she knows “any other guy would charge extra for it,” she says. And despite her years of experience and depth of knowledge, “there’s this male mentality where sometimes they think they’re so much smarter than you are,” she says. “But I can do everything a handyman would do. There’s just not a word for a handywoman in the dictionary.” 

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