It has been an incredible trip so far: Magic Bus started as a small group of volunteers conducting informal rugby sessions and outdoor camps for disadvantaged children in Mumbai. It quickly turned into a multiple award-winning, large-scale NGO working to move millions of children and youth from highly marginalized communities in India out of poverty. Matthew Spacie, founder of Magic Bus, has talked with us about success, failure, and how to generate impact on a systemic level.
You came to India after graduating from high school in 1986 and returned ten years later as a young professional. How did you become a social entrepreneur?
Matthew Spacie: You arrive in Bombay and you see the great wealth and the great poverty in a city of 25 million people where literally half do live in the streets and the slums, and half do live in apartment blocks. This had an enormous impact on me. I really wanted to get engaged in something beyond my work, but I struggled to find an NGO where I could use my skill sets as a manager. In 1998, I decided that I would take a bunch of young men that were living on the streets beside my rugby club and start a rugby team with them called “Magic Bus.” So, on a Saturday, the poorest young people in the city were playing against the richest people in the city. And for that time, they were equal. This was the genesis of the idea of what we do today.
What happened then?
Matthew Spacie: I learned important things in the following years. First, the power of using sport. When you throw a football up, every child would grab that ball. Children absolutely love to play. The background, gender or religion don’t matter. When you think of poor children, lots of people do not think about childhood. Instead, many of them think about the critical stuff like education or health.
Matthew SpacieIn 1986, Matthew Spacie came to India in his gap year between high school and university. He worked as a volunteer with the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta. After his graduation and a number of management positions in the UK, he came back to India in 1999 as the Chief Operating Officer for Cox Kings, then India’s largest travel company. In the same year, at the age of 29, he founded Magic Bus for which he worked full time from 2001 onwards. In 2002, Matthew was awarded an Ashoka Fellowship and in 2007 he was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to children in the Commonwealth. Matthew is part of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network.
So you stepped into this gap?
Matthew Spacie: Exactly! We were hiring a bus over the weekend. The idea was to use rugby team members as mentors for children. We very much use people within a community to change their community. The kids were looking up to them. So, we took them on an amazing holiday. These weekends were providing children with a bank of experiences which definitively increased their resilience. We created a program called Childhood to Livelihood for children from 12 to 18 years old. They commit to finish school, not to get married, and to get a job after school to move away from poverty.
What was the most difficult challenge for you?
Matthew Spacie: The search for talents to work within that sector. It was not an aspirational industry in any way. The second big challenge was what type of capital to attract. I wanted to build an organization that has a systemic impact on poverty. You have to get out there to have best talents, best automation, a brand. All the stuff that a successful for-profit company needs is exactly what a not-for-profit organization needs.
The BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt is one of your partners. How did you get to know them?
Matthew Spacie: I met the BMW Foundation about ten years ago at a time when they were looking for a venue for one of their programs. Markus Hipp, member of the board, came to India, we met and we visited our campus about fifteen miles out of Bombay. He felt it was a great venue. Six months later, he was back with other leaders. He also loved the idea behind Magic Bus. We had a lot of parallel views on how things needed to change.
Magic BusA former rugby player, Matthew Spacie set up Magic Bus two decades ago with a small fund, largely put together with his own contribution and that of his friends. Today Magic Bus impacts 400,000 children in 77 districts across 22 states in India and has affiliates in the UK, the US, and Germany. The organization offers programs for young adults to break out of the crushing cycle of poverty. There are now 7,667 young leaders, from the community who have been trained to mentor and deliver the sports activity-based sessions to children across 798 schools. The Childhood to Livelihood approach helps poor children to complete school and go on to enroll in vocational institutes or colleges. Furthermore, Magic Bus supports them with challenges such as child marriage and child labor.
Then Magic Bus decided to start a chapter in Germany.
Matthew Spacie: Yes, and for that, we needed a lot of help – from a capital perspective, and also from a network perspective. We did not know anybody in Germany. Going in with the BMW Foundation as a partner was incredibly helpful for us. Also, an executive from the Foundation came on our board. The Foundation has a magnificent mandate to bring people together, developing these very critical conversations. Through the Foundation, we were also able to develop a cooperation with the BMW Group. We worked closely with the BMW India office and have been donated over a million euros now by the corporation. As a result of that donation, probably 10,000 young adults went through our Childhood to Livelihood program.
You founded Magic Bus in 1999. What did you achieve in the last twenty years?
Matthew Spacie: We measure our work a lot. So far, we have had almost two million children who went through our program. Currently, 420,000 children are enrolled. 82% of them will get a job. Today, 10,000 mentors are working for us. We firmly believe that the work needs to be done within a community. That is why we are working to make a child a youth and then an adult feeling responsible and accountable for the impact on their communities.
After twenty years, you are handing your organization over to the next generation. What is your vision for Magic Bus?
Matthew Spacie: We are going through a transition right now. As a founder I would like to hand over the executive power of the organization. I don’t want things to go wrong. I would like that my organization keeps thinking about different ideas, new ideas, creates systemic change, and continues to have a culture that tries to solve something so important. There is no point in building parallel structures. Instead, we have to work with the government.
"We firmly believe that the work needs to be done within a community."
What advice would you give to young social entrepreneurs?
Matthew Spacie: My advice is simple: Just go and do something. It is not about writing a business plan and raising some money. Go and taste it, go and experience it, and then come back wiser. A strength is to know how you are going to plug your weaknesses. I am never trying to work on my weaknesses, instead I work on my strengths. I've learned that it is ok to fail and to rebuild. From a leadership perspective, this has enabled us to build a significant organization. Twenty years ago, I did not imagine the success of Magic Bus.
You are a member of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network. What is your definition of a Responsible Leader?
Matthew Spacie: For me, a responsible leader is a person who is being aware of the impact one can have. Using your voice and your personality is very powerful. I always reminded myself that the people with whom I am working do not have the option to walk away from this. It grounds me when I am coming back to that fact. To be respectful inside and outside the organization is important. Also, honesty, integrity, and the ability to speak up when you feel that there is something wrong are crucial.