March 30, 2015 12:00 PM

Robert Herjavec seemed to have it all: a lucrative business empire bolstered by his role on ABC’s hit show Shark Tank, a garage full of Ferraris at his multimillion-dollar Toronto mansion and a picture-perfect family. But privately his world was crashing down. After 24 years of marriage, he and wife Diane Plese legally separated last June. Upset by the split, his three children, Caprice, 17, Skye, 18, and Brendan, 21, initially refused to speak to him, Herjavec says, and he was so devastated he stood on his balcony and contemplated jumping. “I’ve always thought that there is nothing that can rock my world, but I woke up one night and wanted to end it,” he says. “All I could think was, ‘I can’t go on.'”

After several dark, trying months, Herjavec pulled himself back from the brink. One of the contestants on the new season of Dancing with the Stars, the tech mogul, 51, says he emerged from his crisis “stronger, more empathetic and more balanced.” The key to his recovery, he says, was working at a Seattle homeless shelter for 21⁄2 weeks, spending his nights on the streets helping the destitute. His pastor, John McAuley, a Congregational minister, urged him to go. “This place saved me, man,” says Herjavec, opening up to PEOPLE as he headed to a homeless encampment under a highway overpass on a recent return trip to volunteer. “I always think, ‘What was the purpose of all this pain?’ I think this gave me the opportunity to reconnect with God and to help others. The way I was was unsustainable.” Adds McAuley: “Robert was in need. Little did I realize the profound effect this would have on him.”

Neither did Herjavec, a self-confessed “fanatically driven” businessman whose Croatian family arrived in Canada in 1970 “with a suitcase and $20” after fleeing the former Yugoslavia, where his father had been jailed 22 times for criticizing Communism. The first in his family to learn English, Herjavec, an only child, grew up “poor and with a big chip on my shoulder.” But after offering to work for an ex-IBM exec for nothing to get his start, he earned a fortune creating and selling tech companies. With a personal net worth reported at more than $100 million, he wrote bestselling business books and gained fame judging contestants’ start-up ideas on Shark Tank. “I always felt like the underdog, and that made me highly motivated,” he says. “Not to buy more stuff. I just wanted to be the best I can be.”

Herjavec was unprepared for the fallout after he and his wife separated last summer. “Things weren’t good for a while,” he says. “We were great parents and a great team, but we weren’t great for each other. I should have had the courage to leave sooner, but I didn’t because of my kids.” (Plese couldn’t be reached for comment.) Herjavec insists he isn’t worried about financial repercussions (see box). “It’s just money,” he says. “The thought of not speaking to my kids hit me hard. They were upset. They sided with their mom.”

He spiraled into despondency. “I would go to sleep and wake up in the middle of the night screaming,” he says. “When I called my pastor, I said, ‘I will not survive until tomorrow.'”

Herjavec was an emotional wreck when he arrived at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission in July and was quickly put to work in the soup kitchen, then later aiding homeless people on the streets. “Nobody knew who I was,” he says. “People thought I was a recovering addict. I didn’t trust myself to be alone.”

His personal pain was slowly eclipsed by compassion for the people he met. “The guiding principle is you have no judgment and nothing but love in your heart,” he says. “Think how different that is from Shark Tank – which is nothing but judgment! I always used to think that if you are that compassionate, you are weak.” He still volunteers at the shelter whenever he can and helps support it financially, at one point buying all of a local Walmart’s inventory of socks to hand out.

After falling so low, he also no longer feels “bulletproof.” And it’s this newfound sense of vulnerability that inspired him to “move out of my comfort zone” and compete on Dancing with the Stars, a show he first got hooked on while watching it with his mother, Katica, in the hospital as she battled the ovarian cancer that claimed her life in 2007. “She loved the pageantry of it,” says Herjavec, who has been practicing eight hours a day. “He’s got more energy than anyone I’ve ever met,” says his dance partner, Kym Johnson. “He’s laser-focused.”

Has one of TV’s best-known sharks lost his bite? Hardly. But his stints on the streets of Seattle have helped him make “peace” with the pain that almost pushed him over the edge. “It doesn’t make it any easier, but I have a lot of faith in the future now,” he says, adding, “I was hollow and broken, and these people saved my life. And for that I’ll always be grateful.”

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