From undocumented to entrepreneur: The healing of Reagan John Rada

From jewelry to real estate to financing small business: Good business sense

By Loida Nicolas Lewis

The life story of Reagan John Rada fits a line in the comma poems of Jose Garcia Villa: “peaks, and, precipices, my, proud, geography”.

Born in Panganiban, Camarines Norte to Romeo and Milagros Rada, he was the youngest of seven children — six boys and one girl. His parents adopted an orphan girl when she was about 2 years old.

After completing a B.S. secondary education in computer science, his mother brought him with her to USA on June 18, 2000. She made a mistake with the immigration officer when she said she was staying two weeks and her son was staying six months. Oopss! Thus began his life in America as an “illegal.” His mother went back to Manila and left 19-year-old Reagan to fend for himself.

He lived in a small apartment with seven newly arrived Pinoys where everybody worked whatever jobs paid cash.

He found work on weekends with an elderly couple in a luxury apartment in Park LaBrea, L.A. The husband had spinal injury. Reagan had to lift body from bed to wheelchair, move him into the toilet, back to the bed, and helped him from feeding to sleep. He was paid $150 for 24 hours for three days work. When he found a job as an errand boy/runner/cleaning clerk in a jewelry manufacturing firm in downtown L.A., the wife was so mad at him she threw all his clothes and personal items out the window cursing and screaming at him.

Reagan learned how to make jewelries, repair minor jobs and set stones, specifically adapting drawings into designs. He could execute a design from paper drawing into three-dimensional jewelry. His employer recognized his talent and skill. In 2002, RJM got the contract for Celine Dion and Elton John to create jewelries to be sold at their concerts in Las Vegas. 

With the legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor. Rada designed jewelry for The House of Taylor Jewelry Company in mid-2000.

His skill won the attention of the late Elizabeth Taylor, who bought their company in 2005 and formed The House of Taylor Jewelry Company (Nasdaq HOTJ). When he told his mother that an actress named Elizabeth Taylor bought the firm where he worked, his mother was thrilled her son would be working for her favorite movie star.

In the next three years, Reagan earned good salary as Director of Fulfillment and Designs. He occasionally ate dinner with Taylor in the home previously owned by Frank Sinatra.

When Taylor — she had remained a British citizen — was renewing her green card, her company learned that Reagan was undocumented and living in the U.S. for more than seven years. Her Company, HOTJ pushed through a plan for Reagan to apply for permanent residence based on his “extraordinary ability in the arts and sciences”. With the help of Senator Barbara Boxer and other friends of Taylor, Reagan received his green card.

He cried tears of joy, called his mom in the Philippines and opened a bottle of champagne. No more living in the shadows.  

In 2007, the House of Taylor Jewelry went public and having been given generous shares in the company, Reagan was grateful for the unexpected blessings.

Then came the financial crisis of 2008! The newly formed publicly traded company did not survive the massive sell-off and eventually closed down in April of 2008. Reagan found himself unemployed. And depressed. He decided to heal his wounds in Manila and flew home for the first time after eight years.

While touring Asia, he received a long-distance call from New York. The House of Piranesi owner, who knew him and his exquisite execution of fine jewelry, offered him a job. He flew back to L.A., sold everything he owned and, with two suitcases and a knapsack, arrived in New York on August 4, 2008.

Reagan decided to invest in real estate by buying his first rental house in Port Charlotte, Florida because due to the financial crisis, beautiful homes were selling cheaply. The bank gave him a mortgage because he had a job with the Piranesi jewelry company.

Thus began his love affair with real estate. He started buying lots in Florida and in Cleveland, Ohio with business partners he met in his travels. He had dozens of properties at one point all over the United States.

By 2011, he was able to move into a Manhattan apartment and met a financial analyst in a hedge fund company. From Ed, he learned about the financial world and started investing in equities, bonds and derivatives.   He started selling some of his lots, some he bought at $8K and sold at $60k if not more.

He started a grocery business, RJP Mart, during the pandemic.

The years 2014 to 2017 were his golden years where everything was going well in both the jewelry business and in his real estate investments. He expanded in the suburbs of Chicago and started buying more properties there.

But the end of his idyllic situation happened around February 2018. The owner of Piranesi died of cancer. Reagan was devastated. He looked up to this man as a father figure who pushed him to be confident, creative and develop a good business sense.

On May 4, 2018, he got a call that his mother was hit by a car while she was standing on the sidewalk outside a school in Sacramento. The next call came from the hospital seeking his DNR authorization. He could not believe what he was hearing. He caught a plane to Sacramento praying to God to allow him to see his mother alive one last time. By the time the plane had landed, it was too late.

On his fourth day since arriving in NYC, he received another call from Manila. Although Reagan’s parents have lived separately, his father missed his mother so much he told everyone, “I want to die.”  He did. Reagan went back to Manila the next day to bury his father.

How did he overcome the despair and sorrow of three deaths in one year?

He decided that he would dedicate himself to helping others achieve their dreams through business where he would be the financial partner.

Thus was born his own company, RJP (Reagan John Projects) Ventures. He started organizing concerts of well-known Filipino singers and entertainers. His first event was a sold-out event in Newark of comedian Vice Ganda. In 2019, he promoted 13 concerts all over the U.S. to sold-out crowds.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, he started another business selling grocery items through Facebook with his then driver, Kenneth Dizon as his partner. All orders would be delivered personally by Reagan to hundreds of Filipino homes in NYC. This would be the start of RJP Mart and The company delivered for free in the five boroughs and certain New Jersey cities for free with a minimum order of $40. 

He also bought the Cabalen Restaurant in Jersey City, and eventually opened a second location in Hackensack. He included a bakery shop in the Cabalen restaurants and named it Bev’s Bakery. He also recently acquired Lapu-Lapu Foods to have a presence in NYC. 

But the real healing came during the court trial for the woman who hit his mother in a vehicular tragedy. He stood up to speak on behalf of the family and told the judge that although he was not religious, he believes that “I can do all things through God who strengthens me.” For him, the prayer meant forgiving the woman instead of prosecuting and convicting her. 

“It will not bring my mother back. We are better than the tragedy. And by forgiving her, God makes me stronger,” he said. It was at that moment that Reagan felt relieved of the heavy burden of revenge, retribution and regret. “God tested me to understand what God wanted from me. That moment was the most spiritual thing I have ever done in my life.”

In fact, the judge herself said she had never witnessed compassion, forgiveness and kindness at that level. 

Reagan, who is 41, currently lives in Jersey City and in his weekend home in City Island in New York.  He also lives in Fort Lauderdale during the winter.  His vision of unity among Filipinos is to create the biggest Filipino American music festival in New York.  He would like to see a Philippine Center somewhere in New Jersey so our ‘kababayan’ will have venue for their events and cultural presentations. 

© The FilAm 2021

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