In October, Amber Leong astonished the investors on ABC’s Shark Tank with her story: As a 20-year-old, Leong had ridden a one-way ticket from the outskirts of tropical Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to a snowy Minnesota college, where she beat a life-threatening illness before launching a successful light-therapy company, despite having no engineering experience. Circadian Optics, her $4 million, Minneapolis-based startup, scored a total of $750,000 from Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner. The Sharks even topped their offer with an extra $50,000 for Leong’s parents, who’d cashed out their retirement funds to send her to the U.S. and, eventually, the pitch of a lifetime. –As told to Emily Canal
I grew up in a village in Malaysia, near Kuala Lumpur. My parents were the first in their families to have office jobs. They sent my sister, brother, and me to school in the city with all the high-rise buildings. My sister and I would be the first ones in our family to go to college.
I was really inspired by American ideals and knew that the U.S. was where I wanted to go to school. My parents understood the value of education and were willing to support me. That’s something I’m very grateful for. They cashed out their retirement funds and gave me about $10,500 for my first semester at Bemidji State University in Minnesota in 2004. I had a one-way ticket and enough to cover my dorm, food, and books. After that, I was on my own and had to figure things out.
I was ready for an adventure. I got a job as a resident assistant and saw snow for the first time. Things were going great for about nine months, until suddenly I got very sick. Within 24 hours, I was in the hospital ICU, where they diagnosed toxic shock syndrome. I was in and out of consciousness because of sepsis. My boyfriend at the time–he’s now my husband–slept in an uncomfortable chair every night beside me. Sometimes, I would hear my parents calling my ICU nurses. I kept thinking, “My poor parents–what have I put them through?” I knew I had to be OK.
I left the hospital after 20 days. A lot of people go through toxic shock and lose limbs or their lives. An experience like that makes you want to try things and gives you courage. It changes you.
Sharks Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner put 0,000 behind Leong's small and stylish sunlamps. The largest, most expensive lamp is the Lattis (above), at a foot high and .
I graduated from college in 2006 and, in 2008, I got my MBA from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. I found a job as a brand manager for Jack Link’s, the jerky company, and did well. But I also felt like I was not in the arena–I was just a spectator.
January 2014 was extremely cold and dark–some days, it dropped below 20 degrees–and I was feeling sluggish and couldn’t concentrate. I had trouble sleeping at night and getting up in the morning. I hadn’t experienced seasonal depression in school, but in my corporate job, I was working long hours and not exercising. I found an article about seasonal depression and the benefits of light-therapy lamps, and then went on Amazon and purchased the best-selling one. It was a big fluorescent lamp that took up a lot of space on my desk. My co-workers used to tease me, but I quickly felt the benefits: I was more awake, I had more energy, and I slept better at night.
I read scientific papers about light therapy and took the time to understand the science behind it. I learned that LED technology was getting better and that there was a way to control the brightness of the light with a lot less power, so the lamps could be smaller and still improve your mood, sleep, energy, and concentration. That’s when the idea for Circadian Optics came up.
The core of our company is that the design has to be different from that of the bulkier lamps on the market. All of our designs are our own and patented–it’s not like we go to a factory and pick something off the shelf. If it doesn’t look good, people won’t use it.
At Jack Link’s, I learned about consumer insights, branding skills, and financial skills. My husband is my co-founder and focuses on the technology and engineering side.
We used my savings to order products a little at a time, so we could manage the cash flow. In 2018, we got a Small Business Administration loan. I also sold my car to help support the business. Actually, I sold two cars, because I also sold my husband’s car. And I cashed out what was in my 401(k).
Our first year, 2016, we brought in $400,000 selling 18,000 units. The following years, we sold 43,000 and 92,000 units, and then I went to the Shark Tank casting call at the Consumer Electronics Show. I didn’t get picked.
By some miracle, the show reached out in 2019 and asked if I was still interested.
Shark Tank is the pitch of your life. When I was preparing, I had the chance to see Hamilton. There’s this song that goes, Hamilton “got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.” In the trailer before pitching the Sharks, I was listening to that song.
I messed up my first attempt at the pitch, but surprisingly, the Sharks were very encouraging. I forgot one line, and they told me to try it again.
My Shark Tank deal was with Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner, a $750,000 investment for 20 percent of the company–plus a $50,000 gift for my parents. (I’d already repaid them what they’d given me for college.) I was deeply moved by that. I didn’t expect it. Mark Cuban has said many times before, “This is not Charity Tank.”
The episode aired last October, and we closed the year with $4 million in revenue. Since the show, I’ve gotten a lot of support from people at home and people who were inspired by my story. My brush with death was a gift. I knew what my future would have looked like if I had stayed in my corporate job: I would have worked hard from 9 to 5, gotten a promotion, and been comfortable, and my parents would have been proud. But I had the idea in my head, and I wanted to be brave.