The Dancing with the Stars contestant opens up about his split and how he found new purpose in helping the homeless
Late one night last July, shortly after Robert Herjavec and his wife filed for separation, the star of the ABC hit reality show Shark Tank stood on a balcony of his Toronto hotel room and contemplated jumping.
“I just wanted to end it,” Herjavec says in PEOPLE’s new issue in a story that chronicles how the 51-year-old multimillionaire tech mogul and Dancing with the Stars competitor found “hope” and new purpose in life after hitting rock bottom following the breakup of his marriage.
“It’s been a terribly difficult year,” he adds. “We were great parents and a great team, but over time we drifted apart.”
Herjavec and Diane Plese, his wife of 24 years, have three high school- and college-age kids, who initially didn’t speak with their father after the split. “Everyone has their kryptonite,” Herjavec says. “For me, it was my kids. It took me to a place I never thought I would go.”
And so, on that dark night last July, a distraught Herjavec reached out to his pastor John McAuley, who steered him to Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, an innovative shelter that provides emergency care and long-term recovery services to the homeless.
The next day, a despondent Herjavec arrived in Seattle, made his way to the downtown shelter and was promptly put to work in the soup kitchen. “Nobody knew who I was,” he says. “People thought I was a recovering addict.”
The pain of his own life was soon eclipsed by the “suffering and hopelessness” of the desperate men and women he met in the shelter. Before long, Herjavec was heading out on late-night “search and rescue missions,” bringing food and other essentials to “this whole world of people living beneath underpasses and under trees, who aren’t well enough to make it into the shelter.” At one point, he bought out all of a local Walmart’s inventory of socks to hand out – “I think I’ve donated around 100,000 pairs,” he says.
“I always used to think that if you are compassionate, you are weak,” Herjavec says. “You see that on our show.”
After two and a half weeks, Herjavec left the streets of Seattle humbled, raw and looking for a new experience to help take his mind off the “pain” caused by his split. When he was offered a spot on DWTS – a show he first got hooked on watching when visiting his mother in the hospital as she battled the ovarian cancer that claimed her life in 2007 – he jumped at the chance.
“She loved the pageantry of it,” he says.
And for the past month, Herjavec, who has been putting in eight hours a day practicing with DWTS partner Kym Johnson, loves the idea of trying to tackle a new challenge.
“I went into this really petrified,” he says. “But now I’m thinking, ‘I got this.’ But we’ll see.”
Of rumors he and Johnson are dating, Herjavec tells PEOPLE: “The entire cast and crew of Dancing with the Stars is evolving into an extended family and is incredibly supportive. Kym has become a great friend, and it is so much fun to be able to share this experience with her.”
As for his stint on the dance floor, “I’m just super excited,” he says, “because it’s a different experience, one that’s definitely out of my comfort zone.”
That’s saying a lot, coming from a man who spent much of the past year pushed far outside of his comfort zone and has only recently arrived at a place where he can begin to make sense of it all.
“I was hollow and broken,” says Herjavec, who still volunteers at the Seattle shelter whenever he can and helps support it financially. “And these people saved my life.”
For much more from Herjavec’s emotional interview, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday