Real Life

Sacha Coburn is singing her way to business success

Her regular coffee came with a shot of love and a new business venture

As Sacha Coburn stood on stage in front of hundreds of her peers graduating from the prestigious Harvard Business School, she did what she always does at the beginning of a speech – she sang.

The motivational speaker, entrepreneur, mother and cancer survivor readily admits singing is not her strength, but she believes deeply in being brave and encourages others to do so too.

“It was such a career highlight for me to be able to represent New Zealand on that stage,” says Sacha, 49, who was chosen by her classmates to deliver the keynote speech.

Back home in Aotearoa, it was 1.30am and her parents John and Jill Bourne were awake to watch Sacha’s big moment via livestream.

Singing Nina Simone’s Feeling Good during her Harvard speech.

“Mum always gets nervous about me singing and she told my dad, ‘This is such a relief, I don’t have to worry because of course she’d never do that in this esteemed, professional environment,'” shares Sacha, who moon-walked backwards to the podium and instantly had her mum worried again.

“As soon as she saw me stand, she said, ‘Oh, no, John, I think she’s going to sing.'”

Laughing at the memory from the graduation ceremony in June this year, Sacha tells how grateful she was for the opportunity, which was made possible by a Prime Minister’s Business Scholarship.

“Harvard campus is like Disneyland for geeks,” she enthuses. “I’d be standing there with little squirrels crossing my path, pinching myself and squealing with delight. There were so many moments of being overwhelmed with how lucky I was to be there.”

The inspiring entrepreneur accepted the scholarship to upskill for her Kiwi business Coffee Culture, which she fell into after falling in love with the founder and her now- husband Chris Houston, 56.

“I was living in Sumner [Christchurch], working as a lawyer, and I’d stop by every day and get my coffee at Coffee Culture,” tells Sacha, who met Chris in 1999.

“There was this handsome guy behind the counter. He was working so hard every day, making sure guests were being delighted.

With husband Chris, who she recalls being “this handsome guy behind the counter”.

“If I came in and Chris wasn’t there, the staff would ring him and say, ‘She’s here, mate’, so some of the visits were not entirely accidental!”

And so, a new adventure awaited – falling in love, becoming a stepmother to Chris’ son Jordan, two more children together, and a more active role in Coffee Culture, which now has 20 stores around the country.

The pair wed in 2008 and these days Chris is the managing director, while Sacha is the chief operating officer.

“Coffee Culture has been around for 26 years. Customers have had babies, who’ve grown up and now they’re on our teams. It’s so cheesy, but it makes my heart sing,” says Sacha, who also co-started The Company You Keep, a motivational leadership business.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Sacha. At just 36 years old, with two young children, she was diagnosed with high nuclear grade aggressive multifocal breast cancer.

“I know I was really lucky to come out the other side of that,” Sacha marvels.

“But I don’t think, ‘Why me?’ I’ve done nothing to be more deserving of luck and it was just dumb luck.”

True to her relentlessly positive nature, when Sacha first discovered a lump on her chest, she believed it was a new muscle from her recent tennis lessons.

“My children were eight and four, but the gift cancer gave me was seeing how much I have to be thankful for. My parents and our community wrapped their arms around us.

“I had my head shaved, and came back into the coffee shop and our regular customers were right there with me,” remembers Sacha, who underwent chemotherapy, radiation treatment and a mastectomy.

“I wouldn’t wish cancer on anybody, but I wish everybody had the opportunity to feel that outpouring of love while they’re alive. We should share those messages and not save them up for funerals.”

Chris and Sacha are now based in Hamilton with their children Tiger, 21, and Portia, 17. Jordan, 31, lives in Auckland, where he works as an accountant.

Family time with Portia and Tiger.

Family is everything to the hard-working parents, but they’re also giving back to the community. They pride themselves on supporting young people into their own businesses through franchise opportunities – since 2010, they’ve been awarding scholarships to help young Kiwis achieve their goals through the Coffee Culture Charitable Foundation, and they also raise funds to directly support the plantations and workers where they source their coffee beans from.

“I think it’s a real blessing if you find something you love doing, that also does good in the world,” Sacha shares.

“Every day I try to make life a bit better for someone else – and the vehicle I do that through is business and coffee.”

Related stories