First-ever Malaysian to score deal on Shark Tank grew up poor, nearly died, and then built a US$7.5 million company

She was given a 50:50 chance of survival after being diagnosed with toxic shock syndrome.
Facebook / CircadianOptics

The first-ever Malaysian entrepreneur to appear on hit US television show Shark Tank may be faced with a bright future for her light therapy business, but Amber Leong was not always given an easy path to walk on.

Leong, 35, won over the big wig investors of Shark Tank with her tear-jerking backstory last Sunday (Oct 6).

The Kuala Lumpur native, who described herself as “just a girl from a small town in Malaysia” on the show, was born and bred in Salak South Village, Malaysia. 

US business magazine Inc reported that the young entrepreneur managed to land a US$800,000 (RM3.36 million) deal with two of Shark Tank’s most prominent investors, Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner, in exchange for a 20 per cent stake in her company, which she said had a valuation of US$7.5 million.

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Leong was originally looking for a US$750,000 deal in exchange for 10 per cent equity in her light therapy startup, CircadianOptics. Her US-based company sells small and stylish lamps that help regulate the body’s circadian rhythm – the body’s way of telling you when to sleep and wake – by mimicking the colour and brightness of the sun. 

According to Inc, CircadianOptics sold US$4 million worth of products last year, and Leong expects her company to make US$5.6 million in sales this year. 

When the Sharks challenged her company’s US$7.5 million valuation, she said that she had booked US$7.4 million in lifetime sales through her website. 

She also shared her personal experience of how she overcame disrupted sleep patterns with light therapy lamps when she was still an employee, before putting everything she had into launching her startup. 

The Sharks then asked what her backstory was, and she started to recount her past with a shaky voice.

Read also: The 8 most successful businesses that got their start on ‘Shark Tank’

Leong shared in the show that she grew up poor in Malaysia, in a house with no indoor plumbing, and had childhood dreams of moving to America, in part because she watched too many episodes of “Full House”. 

When it was time to go to college, her parents cashed out their retirement fund and borrowed money from friends to buy her a one-way ticket to the US with only enough money to get her through one semester. 

Nine months after she moved to America, things took a turn for the worse and she was diagnosed with toxic shock syndrome, a rare and life-threatening condition. She was then given a 50 per cent chance of survival, and her parents could not be there for her as they did not have the required visas.

Leong then told the investors about how she managed to survive, got through graduate school, land a job with a six-figure salary and sent money back to her parents.

The emotional story even brought tears to the eyes of “Mr Wonderful” Kevin O’Leary who is known for being mean and blunt.

She said on the show that her experiences gave her a new perspective in life and led her to “choose creativity over certainty”. In 2016, she left her six-figure job to start CircadianOptics with her husband, Kin Mun Chew.

“You represent to everybody around the world who watches this show that it doesn’t matter where you come from, if you put your mind to it, anything is possible,” Mark Cuban told Leong. “You represent everything great about entrepreneurship and the American dream. You are freedom”.

In the 80:20 deal, which Cuban and Greiner proposed, Leong’s parents will receive US$50,000 (RM209,000). 

O’Leary and Barbara Corcoran had also proposed a US$750,000 deal that would give them a 20 per cent stake, split evenly. But in the end, Leong went with Cuban and Greiner’s deal, saying: “I know I should negotiate and be a good business partner. But I’m here for Lori and Mark. You have a deal.” 

On her deal, Leong said later via an Instagram post that when she was walking into the tank that “Mark and Lori were our dream sharks, but we didn’t think it was possible to get a joint offer from both!”

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