She is the talk of the town, and it is not hard to understand why. After all, one of the world’s most famous billionaires has bought a 20% stake in her 3-year old company for RM3.36 million.
And did so in a popular reality TV show in the States.
35-year old Amber Leong’s story would be a typical rags-to-riches story… ok, it is actually a typical rags-to-riches story. But that does not make it any less compelling. Read on and you will see.
Amber is a Malaysian from a village which no one has heard of – Salak South in Kuala Lumpur – and had always dreamed of moving to the states. So when she told her parents that she wanted to go to college there, they cashed out their retirement savings, borrowed some from their friends, and bought Amber a one-way ticket to Minnesota to attend the Bemidji State University, with enough money to last just one semester. After that, she was on her own.
All seemed to be going well until 9 months into her stint, when she was hit with toxic shock syndrome (TSS) – a rare, life-threatening complication of certain types of bacterial infections which occurs especially in women.
She was given a 50-50 chance of surviving the ordeal, and spent 2 weeks in intensive care.
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Fortunately, she pulled through, and went on to graduate school. She got a “six-figure job”, and was able to repay her parents, and send money home.
It was during this time, working a corporate job, that she realised she was being deprived of sunlight, being holed up in the office, and especially during the shorter days in winter.
So she went looking for light sources, or lamps, which would help provide that much-needed sunlight boost. She found one, she called it a “contraption”, which was the butt of curiosity (and joke) from colleagues, because of its clumsy design.
So, what does one do? Well, what every entrepreneur would do – make your own!
Long story short, Amber went to work on her own version of the light therapy lamp, and since 2016 has managed sales in the millions of dollars – to be exact: USD4m so far; and USD5.6m in 2019.
She values her company, Circadian Optics, at USD7m.
Not bad for a small town girl from Malaysia.
But she was not finished yet – she decided to raise more funds to go into production, and to start brick-and-mortar retail outlets for her invention.
That was when her story took a turn towards Hollywood – and this reality tv programme called Shark Tank.
The show invites entrepreneurs to make business pitches to a panel of investors for their inventions or business ideas, and if the investors liked them, they could invest in them.
Amber, who is a big fan of Shark Tank, had joked to her friends that she would be on the show one day.
She should have been careful in what she was wishing for because, well, her application to join the show succeeded. She was one among 40,000 others who applied. And as luck would have it, she was picked to appear on the show in June.
It was an out-of-body experience, she said later, about appearing on the show.
One of the four sharks (ie, the panellists) was billionaire Mark Cuban.
Amber began her pitch with her personal story of how she had this dream of moving to the land of the brave, how her parents basically gave up everything they had to make that dream come true, how all of it was nearly for nothing as she battled TSS, and how eventually she emerged with more than she had dreamed.
Her story brought tears to one of the judge’s eyes, and moved Cuban as well.
“You represent why we all do this show,” he told her during the show. “You represent to everybody in America that watches this show, that it doesn’t matter where you come from. If you put your mind to it, anything is possible. You represent everything great about entrepreneurship, the ‘American dream.’”
And to put his money where his mouth is, Cuban and fellow investor, Lori Greiner, offered Amber USD800,000 (including USD50,000 for her to pay back her parents) for a 20% stake in Circadian Optics.
Of course, she accepted – and the rest is history in the making.
“So many entrepreneurs apply to get on the show every year and we were picked out of 40,000 applications!” she told Mashable. “The truth is, I was extremely nervous during the pitch. I am also very grateful that we received the validation that investors are willing to put real dollars towards purchasing a Circadian Optics lamp. That fact alone gives me tremendous pride and gratification that something I created is helping tens of thousands of people everywhere live a better life.”
“My brush with the illness changed my perspective in life forever. It crystalizes what’s truly important in life, and it made me want to be brave and do something different in my life.”
So there you are. Dare to dream, and dare to chase that dream. You never know where it will take you!
Amber says she and her husband, who is a partner in the company, is now in talks with Cuban and Greiner on her business plans, moving forward.
We wish them well!
**Another Malaysian, chilli paste entrepreneur William Chew of Mak Tok, made the BBC’s ‘Dragons Den’ recently. He too succeeded on getting investments of US$61,000 from Sarah Davies on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den, which Shark Tank is based on.
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Here is Amber Leong on Shark Tank: