Ishka Villacisneros-Tusjakova is no stranger to hard work. In fact, at 11 years old, her parents had already exposed her to clerical tasks in their company—an experience which trained her to multi-task and challenged her to become more enterprising.
Now at 27, she is the owner of Californila, a fast-growing “personal shopping” online store that provides Manila-based customers with items only available in the US. What started out as pakisuyo and padala now provides Ishka more than just stability, but a means to provide jobs for her relatives and friends while allowing her to follow her passions. (Her 83-year-old grandmother is one of her social media managers!)
In our recent online correspondences, Ishka shared her story in the hopes of inspiring Pinoy immigrants to jump into doing what they love, even if they’re far away from home.
“When I moved to the US, like any other immigrant, I didn't know what to expect. All I wanted was to go back to school to learn more about the tech industry and gain experience in a job related to my field.”
However, in spite of her homesickness, she was presented with an opportunity: personal shopping. Having access to US-exclusive products made her the taga-bili of her family and friends in the Philippines. This brought about the early beginnings of Californila.
“The whole idea of Californila originated from the Filipino tradition of sending balikbayan boxes to our loved ones in the Philippines,” she explained. “When I made a bit of money from a part-time job at a café, I would send items that are worthy to share to my friends and relatives in the Philippines.”
It became so prolific that her family and friends in Manila would offer to pay for a “personal shopping fee” which would cover her transportation and shipping expenses. From then on, she decided to formalize the process, initially starting a shop on the now defunct Multiply, before creating her own online store which has grown to become Californila.
While Ishka is now enjoying the fruits of her labor, it wasn’t easy building her name in a foreign land. Aside from initially not having enough funds to accommodate orders, she was also juggling several other jobs and responsibilities.
“Another issue I faced was the time difference,” she said. Despite having to be at work by 7AM in the US, Ishka had to take care of her business until the wee hours of the morning because she was catering to people in the Philippines. On top of that, she also had a full-time job as a receptionist and a part-time job at a cafe. She ended up having to dedicate her free time to Californila. And "it was a one-woman show," she described.
All this she would do while catering to her online customers, with whom she still needed to build professional trust. “Promoting Californila to the Filipino community in the first years was also kind of tough because I was not physically there and I really want to provide them with great customer service. I started with my friends and colleagues and of course with the help of social media, our service grew by word-of-mouth.”
While she had it rough, giving up never crossed Ishka’s mind.
“I actually never thought of [giving up] because what pushes me forward is seeing it grows and getting a lot of positive feedback from new referrals and loyal customers. This actually challenged me to even improve the quality of service we gave them the day before.”
Ishka kept her customers at the heart of her business. “I think about what they want, what they need and what will make them happy,” she said, and this honest willingness to serve her fellow Filipinos has paid off, as Californila is slowly becoming the go-to site for those looking for hard-to-acquire US products.
“The best reward that my hard work provided me is to see the excitement of the customers in getting their orders and that they saved time and money with our personal shopping service. To hear that they wouldn’t think twice in referring us or ordering more items is really fulfilling as well. Whenever they are able to buy an item that can’t be found in the Philippines, I feel like we’ve accomplished something together.”
As for those who wish to venture out on their own and create their own business either here or abroad but are afraid to do so, Ishka has this advice:
“Life is all about taking risks, if you never take a risk you will never achieve your dreams because you'll be on the same place as you were yesterday. Great achievements happen when you step out of your comfort zone, building this business took a lot of hard work and perseverance. You either take the risk or lose an opportunity to be a better version of yourself.”