On an October episode of ABC reality TV show Shark Tank, Amber Leong, the 33-year-old co-founder of light-therapy lamp company Circadian Optics, walked away with $750,000 for a 20% stake. And, as headlines loved to tote, she made Kevin O’Leary, the meanest judge on the entrepreneur-assessing reality show, cry. Judge Mark Cuban called her the embodiment of the American dream.
Leong’s presentation was more emotional than she’d planned. She grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before a college recruiter and the financial sacrifice of her parents got her a one-way ticket to Bemidji State University. There, her perspective on life would change when she suffered toxic shock syndrome, surviving after 14 days in the ICU. Her takeaway: She has one life, and she doesn’t want to waste it.
She received her undergraduate and MBA degrees and began a career in marketing. As brand manager at Jack Link’s Beef Jerky, she began noticing how tired and unfocused she was feeling, especially during the winter months. Leong did the research and bought a light-therapy lamp. The lamp worked, but because of its bulky obtrusiveness, her co-workers would tease her about it. So, in 2016, she quit her job, founded Circadian Optics with husband Kin Mun Chew, and in just over three years, their aesthetic light-therapy lamps have become a multimillion-dollar company that has doubled its revenue year over year since it began.
Did you expect your presentation on Shark Tank to get as personal as it did?
I didn’t even tell my producers about my toxic shock syndrome. They knew about my background from Malaysia, but the toxic shock syndrome—it was something so personal but such a life-defining moment for me. It’s not something that you trot out in an everyday conversation—“Oh, by the way, I almost died”—but it was really a life-changing experience for me. It does make me choose: I want to live a life less ordinary, I want to be brave, and I have this idea to have a bright light-therapy lamp.
There’s so much talk about “How do you become healthier?” and people are trying out all sorts of things with nutrition and exercise and meditation. All that’s good, but I think there’s a lack of awareness about the importance of light and our body clock. I really believe that it’s the third leg of the stool that holds up a healthy life, in addition to nutrition and exercise.
You were the first Malaysian on Shark Tank. Did that add any extra pressure?
Just in the 10 days since it aired, the Malaysian media has picked it up, and it’s kind of crazy. They’ve been extremely excited for me. They say things like, “She won the reality show Shark Tank,” and I tell my aunties, “No, no, I didn’t win the money. It’s not like it was given to me for free. It’s not a lottery; it’s not a game show.” I have to explain the way Shark Tank is. But it’s been very fun.
I didn’t even think about [being the first Malaysian] going in. I was just thinking about the business and focused on the pitch of my life. I was just preparing, just focused on the product and focused on the benefits. I knew this was a great idea and great product and great brand that America needs to hear. All the personal stuff—it’s part of me, and I tell that story, but I almost try not to think about it. Instead of talking about myself, I want to talk about the brand. I want to talk about our work. That is more substantial; that is more important.
How have you been able to distinguish Circadian Optics from the rest of the light-therapy market?
Two years ago, in 2017, the Nobel Science prize was given to three American scientists on their research on circadian rhythm and light, and because it was a coincidence that my brand is called Circadian Optics, we got a nice bump from that. Then all the media was all about sleep. Whenever that story comes up, it talks about body clocks, blue light, and getting bright light in the morning. Because my name is Circadian Optics, it helps.
One reason we’re able to differentiate is we made investments from the get-go. We put the money on our design and own our own molds in the factory, so no one else can use the same mold. You can go to the factory and choose a mold and put your brand on it; that’s the cheaper way to start a business for sure. But because I wanted to be in this for the long haul, and because of my marketing background, I decided that’s not what I wanted to do. You start a design and you own the design, and it’s a big investment.
From the get-go, you’ve been working with your husband. Some people say don’t mix business with pleasure, but for you it seems to be working.
I think it’s because when hard times come, when things are going rough, I have a co-founder that I trust completely and wholeheartedly. Because this business is so personal, when we make decisions, we are making the decisions together from the point of view of our family and our future. Working with a family member is not easy, especially in the beginning, but we’ve been doing this for a few years now, and we hit a groove where I’m like, “Oh, thank God I’m working on this with my husband because he understands completely.” I don’t have to explain why I’m feeling down or why I’m feeling happy. When you’re down, he’s in the trenches with me, and when you’re happy and things are going well, we jump for joy together.
Do you think living in Minnesota and basing your company out of Minneapolis has affected its path?
No doubt about it, or why else would we still stay? I’m so grateful for Minnesota. I would not have met my husband. I would not have started the business because I would not have gotten this idea if I was not working in Minneapolis. You know, I grew the business from Minneapolis, and I never thought I would be doing this anywhere else because that’s where I’ve always been. Since the airing of Shark Tank, the support we’ve seen from the community, seen from the orders, the messages from Minnesota—I don’t think this can happen anywhere else but Minnesota. We have a lot of hometown pride, and I’ve felt it firsthand in the last 10 days.