Life has been a bit of a whirlwind this week for Minneapolis entrepreneur Amber Leong, who reeled in a $750,000 investment on ABC’s “Shark Tank” for her fledgling business.
Her company, Circadian Optics, sells an assortment of sleek light-therapy lamps aimed at easing the wintertime blues.
But Leong’s personal story seemed to capture the hearts of the “Shark Tank” business moguls as much as her ability to persuade them of her business acumen.
Leong said she grew up poor and without indoor plumbing in Salak South, an area on the southern edge of Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur. She was attending college in Malaysia when recruiters from Bemidji State University offered her a scholarship package that her parents were determined to see through.
They cashed in their retirement savings, borrowed money from family and friends and bought their daughter a one-way ticket to Minnesota in January 2003.
The short winter days were as challenging as the single-digit temperatures.
“I went to work in the dark and went home in the dark,” Leong, 35, told the Star Tribune.
Several years after graduating and while working as a brand manager at Jack Link’s in downtown Minneapolis, Leong bought a light-therapy box in hopes that the bright lamps, which imitate natural sunlight, would lift her low mood and sluggishness.
The light therapy helped, but the aesthetics of the bulky lamp were a big fail.
Along with her husband, Kin Mun Chew — a fellow entrepreneur and Malaysian immigrant whom she met at Bemidji State — Leong set out to build a more beautiful light therapy lamp.
In 2015, Leong left her job at Jack Link’s to focus full-time on Circadian Optics.
Working with a New York-based industrial designer and a factory in China, Leong has now patented five styles of the lamps that are only available online, for $45 to $70.
Sales in the U.S. and Canada last year were $4 million, Leong said. She expects revenue to reach $5.6 million this year, after accounting for tariffs.
In the “Shark Tank” episode that aired Sunday, hosts Lori Greiner and Mark Cuban agreed to invest all of the $750,000 Leong had sought in return for a 20% stake in Circadian Optics. They added a deal-sweetener of $50,000 for Leong’s parents, who still live in Kuala Lumpur.
Leong said details of the deal with the “Shark Tank” stars are still in a confidentiality phase, but that she plans to use the investment to incorporate advances in LED technology into her designs, ramp up production and expand into brick-and-mortar retail locations.
The show, which was taped in June, has drawn national attention to Leong and her coming-to-America story. A YouTube clip of the show, in which several panelists seem to be moved to tears, has been viewed more than 43,000 times and Leong has been making the media circuit.
She said she spent three weeks working on her pitch, with family and friends giving her feedback.
“It’s a dream come true,” Leong said. “Because of the ‘Shark Tank’ platform and audience that it could reach, it will really help us bring this mainstream — make light therapy more accessible and make it less niche, as something people can use every day.”
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335 Twitter: @JackieCrosby