5 Nov 2023

Matthew Spacie

 Matthew Spacie is a visionary leader and social entrepreneur with a passion for creating positive impact. As the Founder and Executive Chairman of Magic Bus, he has dedicated his career to transforming the lives of children and youth living in poverty in India. Matthew’s innovative approach combines sports, mentoring, and education to empower young people and help them break the cycle of poverty. Under his leadership, Magic Bus has grown into a leading nonprofit organization, reaching millions of children across India. Matthew is known for his strategic thinking and ability to inspire others, and he is committed to driving social change through sustainable solutions. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Bristol and is a recipient of numerous awards for his work in the social sector. Matthew’s passion for making a difference in the world continues to drive him to create lasting change in the lives of those he serves.

Episode Highlights

  • (0:00:00) – Nitin Bajaj welcomes Matthew Spacie to the show
  • (0:00:12) – Matthew Spacie answers questions about who he is and what he does
  • (0:03:02) – Magic Bus is a poverty alleviation program that works across Asia
  • (0:09:57) – As magic Bus scales, what’s the biggest challenge facing the organization
  • (0:13:22) – What’s the most exciting opportunity you’re looking at with social enterprise
  • (0:15:59) – You share two examples of failure to success with us
  • (0:19:46) – Matthew, what do you do for fun when you’re not working

Show Transcript

Transcript - Full Episode

Nitin Bajaj: (0:00:00) – Hey, everyone, welcome to the industry show. I’m your host, Nitin Bajaj. And joining me today is Matthew Spacie. Matthew, welcome on the show.

Matthew Spacie: (0:00:08) – Thank you very much for having me, Nitin, thank you.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:00:10) – Pleasure is all ours. Thanks for being here. So let’s start with the big question. Who is Matthew?

Matthew Spacie: (0:00:17) – So when you sent me these questions, that’s probably the one that took the longest to think about, actually. But. So I’m from the UK. I was born in Cyprus, the son of a soldier. And I think sort of, I guess as I grew up, my big influences in my life in those early stages were, of course, my mother, who was a very spiritual person, a Catholic, my father, who was deeply connected to nature. I remember at the weekends, every weekend would be up a mountain or invariably down a mountain as well. And I sort of carried that into sort of, I guess, who I am today and love of the outdoors. And I love sport. And it’s been a huge part of my life as a child. And now what I do in my livelihood. I was lucky enough to play a lot of rugby. I played rugby for India and that sort of molded a lot of some things we do today in magic bus. But as a young, as a young chap, I went through school like every other sort of kid in the western world and was very fortunate enough when I finished school, I had this incredible inner sort of sense to travel to India at the age of 18. And I traveled to Calcutta and worked with Mother Teresa for six months. And that was to really mold with the other elements of my youth that really was going to sort of mold the next couple of chapters of my life, really. I got on a plane at 29 to go to India, sent over to run a travel company, but that soon flipped into starting magic bus. This organization that I run now went through a few financial issues. I ran out of money because we couldn’t pay for my existence running a charity. So I started a.com and did reasonably well off that as well. But I think I would define myself as I thought about this question, as someone who’s really still on this journey. I feel I’m certainly a journey man. It’s quite ironic. It’s called the magic bus now because I feel it is this metaphor of going from my childhood in many ways to my adulthood, my livelihood. And there are many questions I still have unanswered, often helped by my lovely wife, who is always probing me, actually, she’s been an amazing influence on my life just to sort of ensure that I keep honest to what I want to do and who I am. And so that’s Matthew Spacie.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:02:58) – It’s beautiful. And what’s even more beautiful is the story of magic bus. So tell us about magic bus. What’s the mission, the vision, and more importantly, what’s the impact that you and the team have been able to create?

Matthew Spacie: (0:03:13) – So, as I said, evan, I’m not from India. I’ve spent 30 years in India now. But, richardly, you sort of turn up on the streets of a city like Mumbai, and it’s a city of 25 million people. 12 million people have, and twelve and a half million or 30 million don’t have, and had a huge impact on me. And so after a few years of sort of just, I guess, residing in this, I really felt I wanted to do something that was a bit more positive than selling tickets on airplanes for bankers holidays. So I ended up actually starting a rugby team for a bunch of young lads who lived on the street outside my office. And that started sort of. I guess it created more questions and answers about how I wanted to sort of try and engage with young people. I was very fascinated by this idea that you could have so much young talent that was really not being, you know, it really was being misdirected. And that really did sort of defacement me. The rugby team became their passion as much as my passion. And I saw the most beautiful transformation of 25 young men become extraordinary adults, actually, and really reach their potential. And today what it is, is we have offices across Asia and essentially, we work on two things. We work on this idea that if you’re poor, you can still be happy. So we work a lot of agency on this idea of self actualization. So the idea that if you give young people the tools to move from poverty, they can do it. But then also the opportunity structures have to be there as well. So it’s no good saying, I’m going to teach you. I’m going to ensure that you have the right skills, the right efficacy, the right critical life skills, and then leave them hanging because you haven’t given them the financial means to get out of poverty. So we offer that as well. So today, what magic bus does is it’s a poverty alleviation program in its truest form. It takes young people from childhood through to livelihood. It’s as long as a seven year journey. As a young adolescent, we’ll build all those critical skills for you. And we do that now, today for nearly one and a half million children across Asia. And then at the end of that journey, our stake in the ground if you like, is to make sure that young person also gets a job. So we’re now placing 150,000 young people this year in work. And so, yeah, it is amazing. The scope and scale of it is way beyond. I think this was quite an iterative journey for me. Everyone’s quite disappointed by the view that when you start these things, I’m assuming many people don’t really understand how big it could be. We’re now in India, we have programming in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and we’re just about to move into Southeast Asia, actually. So we’ve just got this quite good plans. We have a program which, for $25 a year, with some sense of surety, 85% is the number, actually, we can move a young person from poverty. And that’s an amazing thing to know. Right. And if you know, you’ve got that ip, it’s almost algorithmic, really. So the idea is the more capital we can throw behind that, then the bigger we can solve. In India, it’s a 300 million person problem in terms of below the $2.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:06:56) – And what’s fascinating about those $25 is you’re not just moving one person through that poverty, you’re moving the entire generation and several generations to come.

Matthew Spacie: (0:07:08) – In fact, we’re just about to change our branding to this, actually, because often. Anecdotal, isn’t it? So you start to talk to some of the graduates. Absolutely. And there are so many stories of when we’ve been into families where we’ve only caught the middle child and the children who have gone before. The older children have all been married at 1213, 14 years old. The younger children post the magic bus intervention, they’re all doing their graduation and their view on life is very different. And this ripple effect through the program, through the community, has become so apparent now. You’re absolutely right, it does impact. So it’s difficult to measure all that, of course, though. So I measure the numbers of young people on the program, but yes, it’s multiples of that, of course.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:07:55) – Of course you can capture and measure the direct impact, but the indirect impact is so massive.

Matthew Spacie: (0:08:00) – Correct? Absolutely. And it’s not just the children, obviously, who are on the program, it’s the parents who on the programming itself, we use a lot of games and sport as our intervention. So the idea is this power of play, right? So if you throw a ball up in a village and you can close your eyes on this and imagine that every child will gravitate towards that ball because it’s fun, it’s play, right? But if you use as we do in magic bus that moment to then communicate, to connect with young people. It’s a very relevant form. So that’s sort of our 101 of how we start working with young people in the community. But then we invite the parents. There’s a wonderful story in the early days of when we couldn’t get any of the girls to come and be part of the program. This is in this big community called Durhaby in Bombay. It’s one of the largest low income slums in the world. So we started a football team for the mothers. We said, ok, we’re going to start. Which became a football league. So forget even the girls. We didn’t even start working with the girls. So then all the women. It’s once every year there’s a huge community team event. The grandmothers came along and said, we’ve never played before, can we play? So we started a grandmother’s league, but the condition was that the girls then had to be the referees and be part of that team. So the whole idea was that the whole community started this incredible participation. So cool around. Yeah, it’s amazing. These are stories where I said it’s about a single idea, perhaps, but then this ripple effect through the community is incredible.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:09:49) – That is so amazing. Well, congratulations and kudos to you and the entire team for being able to create impact at that scale. So, Matthew, as you’re scaling, as you’re growing, the impact of the work you’re doing, I’m curious to know what’s the biggest challenge you and your team are facing.

Matthew Spacie: (0:10:10) – So I think the easiest thing for me would be to say capital. I spoke at the beginning of this interview about. It’s almost algorithmic, how we thought about this. We understand what the cost of input is and we understand what the output is. Therefore $25, you should just get more inputs and more outputs. But I think as we have grown this organization and you see almost what it could achieve, I think one of the really difficult things that I feel quite challenged about is how we perceive the value of what we do in the community. And that’s not just the local but the broader community we operate in. When you operate in an organization like magic bus and you start growing and it becomes this beast that you have to feed. Right? And my business, my organization, our business is very different than anyone else’s and that every year I have to start almost at zero to keep going to the next number. Right? But I’m dealing with children. So if I have to have a young person in my program who I can’t just suddenly say, well, sorry, there’s no money. We’ve got to cut you out now. And so we have this unique problem that the balance sheet goes to zero every year and you then start collecting. When I talk about value, it’s also that the world doesn’t quite value the need or understands that actually this is an important thing that we’re doing that can’t be monetized, that plays out in a number of ways plays out in a number of ways in that the level of control people want to assert on your organization is quite extraordinary. Right? So we’re talking about capital, right? So people will tell you where you will spend your know, I don’t think anyone’s ever said to me, Matthew, here’s a million dollars to grow your brand. But everyone will say, be sustainable and grow. Right. And I would love to challenge any company that’s growing without a dollar spent. We have so this idea of risk. People are very risk averse in charity, but that’s why nothing changes, right. That’s why we have 300 million people still living. And this idea, again, of talent, it’s almost as a vitriol, sort of judgment on how much I pay my CEO for doing the good. Imagine this guy sits in India and does a million and a half kids, moves out of poverty, but the world doesn’t want me to pay him a million dollars. Right. I mean, could you ever think of someone more worthy of a million dollars than someone who does that? So it’s very hard in terms of how the outside world values what you do and respects what you do. And I think it’s very difficult then to grow to where you need to go to this end game so large. Somewhat part of my time now in this challenge is to try and start talking about this more openly because I can I sit slightly outside the organization now and just talk about how we need to be thinking about nurturing and supporting organizations like magic Bus.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:13:15) – Now, as we work on challenges, the flip side of that comes opportunities. What’s the most exciting opportunity you’re looking at?

Matthew Spacie: (0:13:27) – So I think a couple of things. I think what I’m seeing at the moment, what I’m sensing is this movement, if you like, towards this new hybrid way of working of how we structure businesses. It started in the business world, perhaps with things we use terms like triple bottom line and with sort of people’s ESG. People are becoming certainly more sensitive to this. On the other flip side of it, you’ve got the charities like Magic Bus, and I’m starting to see these things merging through a new type of social enterprise. And that excites me because I feel it’s a bigger movement. You don’t have to sit on either side of the fence. It can accommodate far more people in thought. So this idea that you could, and of course, the idea of organizations like Tom’s, of course, exists where you give one, get one. But this idea of actually embedding in the cap table, embeding equity, which is more common, pooled around the participants in a program or all the investors or the employees. And so we’re looking at a number of ventures now which can, I think, take the monkey off our back in terms of the quality of capital, but then also try and generate the income for the organization. So I see that as a huge opportunity for the organization.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:14:54) – Very innovative. And I think the impact scales on that will turn pretty quickly. Kind of creating a captive model there.

Matthew Spacie: (0:15:04) – Absolutely. It’s interesting because when I talk to people about the business of, they can immediately relate to it, of course.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:15:15) – Right.

Matthew Spacie: (0:15:15) – Because we work in this sort of system which. Which enables miss to value things.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:15:20) – And.

Matthew Spacie: (0:15:20) – And I think. I think it’s going to open up a whole new conversation with people who maybe more don’t trust as much because we can apply some of the traditional financial tools into a sort of social enterprise now, which is easier to monitor. So I think that’s the breadth of conversation, the level of investment, the change of behavior of people. I think I’m starting to see where people can put one step into a social enterprise and start to understand. Have a conversation with me about actually what are the real challenges of growing a behavioral change organization, which essentially is.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:15:55) – What my jibos is super exciting. Now, as we look forward in the future of what’s coming, I want to take a moment and look back in the rear view mirror, and I would love for you to share two examples. One in which things worked out beyond your expectations and became a huge success, and another one which did not work as you had expected and was a failure. And you hinted at a couple of those, but I would love for you to go into a little more detail.

Matthew Spacie: (0:16:27) – So I guess I’ll probably talk. The story which probably resonates the most and had the most profound impact on me was the story about the formation of magic bus and how we started that. And I used to play a lot of rugby in Bombay and used to play for a club called the Bombay Gym card. So it’s this very elite club in south Bombay. They didn’t have enough teams to play against only two or three teams in the city. So I decided to start a rugby club with the children that lived outside, literally on the street, in this street called Fashion street. And what was incredible was the minute we decided to do that, I was able to bring them from this environment, the street environment in their chudis and their chapels, and literally walk in to this incredible environment with the wealthiest people in the city and change in the same changing room and for 40 minutes being total equals with those people, it was incredible. And so I thought I was doing really well. And then, as in my context, I would come from a very white, middle class background and felt that if I get them a job, everything’s going to be solved and they’re not going to be poor anymore and they’re going to be happy. So that’s what I did. I ended up with these 25 young lads, getting them through my own networks, getting them jobs, and then within three months, every single one of those young men had left runaway, just didn’t turn up for work. And that’s because words like dignity of labor and this whole idea. But in essence, they were having far more fun living on the street and doing the things they were doing. This musty in India. So you selling black market tickets or whatever they were doing from that, which was such a failure, I thought, what am I going to do? But from that, the lesson which was incredible for me was this idea that you can’t fix things quickly like that, right? And I think we have this big problem, certainly in the west, that you create this 101, there’s a problem, let’s go straight to the symptom, right? And then solve that. But essentially one realizes that actually there’s a whole journey that takes place. Getting a young person through navigating through adolescence, especially when you’re living in poverty, is such a difficult thing and it takes time. And that’s what we did. We went back and said, okay, well, let’s start working not with 18, 1920 year olds, let’s start working with 1213 year olds and start the journey there to the point in time when they would on that day make that decision to go and get the job and be financially sustainable. So it was a tremendous lesson. Unfortunately, the world hasn’t caught up with me on this one because the world still thinks I could do it in three weeks. And that is a big problem for us as a society as well, is that that’s obviously not going to happen and we’re not able to get success. But, yeah, but that was the lovely story of failure to success.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:19:44) – That’s fascinating. Matthew, what do you do? I mean you’re extremely busy. You travel a lot, you’re hopping literally around the world. What do you do for fun?

Matthew Spacie: (0:19:57) – I’d like to think a lot of the work I do today is born out of fun place. Of course it’s there but you have to work hard at it. Right. And I think I don’t try and separate it so much from who I am and what I do. So I don’t sort of think, okay, I’m going to now go. And I mean, I love mountain biking, I love nature, I love being outside but I try not to separate it too much from my day. Actually, the benefit of I guess running your own thing as well is that if I can integrate as much of enjoyment as I can into the nine to five. Actually I find that, find that, find that, find that easier. Having said all this, I have a seven, eight and a nine year old.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:20:44) – Oh my God.

Matthew Spacie: (0:20:49) – As a late, slightly elderly father it’s just I’m quite determined also, they keep me young, of course, but I’m quite determined to engage in them. Right. And all the fun. So I’m still tickle monster and all these other things. I think my back hurts a bit more than I think probably both dads do sometimes after a lot of wrestling and skipping and dancing. Just dance is a huge thing in our house. That’s how I try to do it and I try and make them as much part of the journey now as I can. Actually. They are my fun, my wife and my three lovely children. And so for the first time they’re flying to America actually to be on this trip with me. So that is great. It’s lovely.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:21:34) – Yeah.

Matthew Spacie: (0:21:34) – I’m very happy about that.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:21:35) – That is so awesome.

Matthew Spacie: (0:21:36) – It is.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:21:37) – Again, I have to say this, having a seven, eight, nine year old, you’re still out there helping other children, other families, other communities. I really appreciate what you do.

Matthew Spacie: (0:21:49) – So thank you. Yeah, thank. Well, I think my wife used to be twelve. She bears it, of course, but that’s the brunt of it. But yeah, to me it is probably possibly the most difficult thing and in many ways I reflect on this and it’s in that possibly magic bus would not have happened had I had my children earlier and I was absolutely devoted and focused to magic bus. So it’s really important for the payback now is to make sure that I look after my family and I spend time there. I’m trying to balance that much more. I have a fantastic CEO in Bombay who looks after 3000 staff now we have in India. I think we all understand now the ecosystem we work in is different after 25 years of doing this. Right. Yeah.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:22:49) – Which brings me to my favorite part of the show. We call it the one line life lessons. I’d love for you to share the wisdom you’ve acquired over the past 25 years or more and tell us your one line life lessons.

Matthew Spacie: (0:23:05) – I think you’ve already touched on it once, but it’s such a crucial thing, right? Is to have fun. It’s life lesson number one. And I think, again, this comes with age as well, and that is that you realize that nothing is, because it’s not permanent. It’s not particularly real. Right. The world I live in, or all of us live in. Sorry. And so it’s really important to be grounded and understand that this is transient, and we are here for such a short amount of time that we just have to throw ourselves in and enjoy ourselves. I’m starting to think about the things I don’t enjoy, and I can let go of far more in my life, and I think that comes perhaps more with age, but have fun. Smile, engage. Number two. I think number two, I would say, for me, is about commitment. And I think until you commit, there’s always that opportunity to take a step back and not do. Once you commit, I think, for me, it’s almost providence takes over. Right. And all sorts of events start to happen that you never foresaw, people you meet, the environments you find yourself in. And there’s a great deal of genius and magic once you make that commitment. And there’s, as I say, this providence, this idea that actually, this. This energy we don’t fully understand takes over. But that only happens when you’re in the game 100% and you commit to that. So I think this idea of commitment is really important for me. So, number three is this idea about failure. And I think. I don’t know what’s happened in my life, but I’ve never really worried too much. Maybe the bar has always been set, so. But I haven’t ever worried about failure. Even in magic bus. I say to people that we need to hold true to what we know is the right thing to do. Right. And we all need to be together in that. And to know that we sailed the right course. And if we fail, we’ll know that. Right. And so what, right. What is there to lose? And I think far too much weightage around failure. And what is failure? Someone told me the other day, 95% of all entrepreneurs fail. But that’s by what standard, right? I think we need to get this monkey off our back, be fearless. So, number four was to try and find the divinity in everything you do. And I think that, for me, is not just in the relationships we have, but it’s in the environment, the broad environment, as well as the trees and the rivers, of course. But I think innately, I believe that people are really good. And I think we often forget that in the heat of battle, don’t we? And I think if we bring ourselves back to that divinity, that connectedness that we all have, and it helps me in terms of when you’re trying to draw on empathy or trying to understand how this connectiveness can get you to how this connectiveness can just create far more positive energy. And the kind of outcomes we get with magic bus, I believe, is because we’re able to get a collective energy, we’re able to make sure that everyone is connected to that vision, to that cause. And I feel that’s where the power of what we’ve achieved comes from. So, number five, for me, is trying to keep present. And I know that’s such a cliche. There’s books and books written about this, of course, the power of now being actually, ironically, my children have really helped me with this. Right, because they demand you’re in the present. They are there. They stand in front of you and kick you if you don’t. But it is also really important because as an entrepreneur as well, these ranges of emotions that go up and down. You have a good day. It’s brilliant. Come home to the family. It’s amazing. A terrible day, because money’s gone, or someone’s done something, whatever. And so your mind is always all over the place, all the time. And I think that’s a very common sort of found entrepreneurial leader issue. So I think just making sure you’re rooted in what is real, which is that moment in time, and trying to close everything out other than that, is something I’m getting better at it. I don’t stress too much about the past. It’s gone. I have no idea what’s going on tomorrow. So let’s not worry too much about it.

Nitin Bajaj: (0:28:07) – Matthew, thank you for sharing your journey, your story, for being vulnerable, for being open, being honest, and also for sharing your online life lessons. We really appreciate it. But the most I appreciate is you for being who you are, for doing what you do. Thank you. And congratulations on all of your success, to you and to your team, and wishing you a lot more of the same.

Matthew Spacie: (0:28:35) – Thank you very much. It’s been a real pleasure being here and look forward to seeing you again soon, hopefully in India. Likewise.



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