Matt Parker and Laura Parker co-founded The Exodus Road, an international anti-trafficking organization while living in Thailand. Matt, an expert in undercover operations and casework, has partnered with law enforcement all around the world to combat human trafficking crime. Matt served as the CEO of The Exodus Road for nearly a decade growing the organization from $50,000 to $3M in revenue. He built international teams and programming in six countries (Thailand, India, Latin America, Brazil, United States, and Philippines). The Exodus Road quickly became a leader in anti-trafficking, especially in supporting police in building evidence for successful rescue operations and the arrest and prosecution of traffickers.
In addition to his leadership, Matt Parker is a professional speaker and expert fundraiser. Featured on podcasts, interviews and in the media, Matt has given speeches on stages with 16,000 and consistently motivates audiences with stories from his front-line work and passion to fight against global exploitation. Over the past decade, The Exodus Road has raised over $17M, and Matt has been directly responsible for $8M in donations into the organization.
Currently, he serves as the International Chief Strategist for the organization, as he continues to train, speak, lead and envision a world without human trafficking.
Based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Matt works extensively internationally.
Where did the idea for The Exodus Road come from?
When my wife Laura and I were living and working in Thailand doing humanitarian work, we were learning about the realities of sex trafficking there. I served on a collaborative working group with other NGOs and the Thai police. We were researching specifically the obstacles the police and authorities faced in fighting human trafficking crime. We began to understand that it was really difficult to gather the evidence necessary for successful operations that would result in victim rescues and trafficker arrests and prosecutions. Over the course of our research, we learned that police needed intelligence, technology, training, and resources.
While participating in this working group, I was asked to go undercover and follow a lead of potential child sex trafficking. After that initial mission, I was deputized by the Thai police as an informant and began working with them to gather evidence of sex trafficking — especially cases involving minors.
As I did this work with police in Thailand, I began to imagine having greater impact by training and equipping other people to do what I was doing — assisting police in fighting human trafficking crime. My wife Laura and I were talking one morning on our porch in Thailand, and we started dreaming of starting a nonprofit that could do this work with us.
During that conversation, I thought of the ancient story of the Hebrew people and Moses, found in the Old Testament in the Bible. I remembered that the account of their leaving slavery in Egypt was called literally The Exodus — the way out, the leaving.
And I thought about how a road depicts a path, an action. And how really what we were trying to do was to build a path out of modern-day slavery. I turned to her and said, “What if we call the nonprofit, ‘The Exodus Road?’” We both knew immediately that the name and the idea behind it fit perfectly.
Of course, at the time, we weren’t sure if a charity like this would work. Human trafficking is a complex field that’s so often misunderstood, the specific focus we had in finding those enslaved and gathering evidence of trafficking crime was such high risk, and we were working in corrupt environments — there was so much stacked against us. But, over time, we just kept moving forward and courageous people started to help us, and The Exodus Road as of 2021, has supported over 1500 survivors in that walk towards freedom, and the numbers keep growing daily.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I am a visionary; I know that about myself. I do my best work when I place myself in creative spaces. I’ve found over the years that too many hours in front of a computer at my office kills that creative vision, and so I limit my time there.
I find that when I block my time, I’m more productive. I schedule blocks of time when I’m focused on projects and greatly limit my distractions when I’m focused on something specific. I’ll turn off notifications, limit phone calls.
Because I work internationally, I also find that traveling is critical to my productivity because it allows me to see and do the work on the ground. When I spend the time to problem-solve a case with police or conduct undercover investigations into trafficking alongside our teams, that firsthand experience of the actual work makes me so much more productive over the long run. It informs my decisions.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I am a verbal processor and communication is one of my strongest gifts. I can cast a vision, and then I can share that idea with others to get them motivated and excited about it, too. I think bringing ideas to life starts with motivating the people around you towards that same vision or idea. At the end of the day, you need a team to implement anything, so the more time you can spend at the beginning communicating and getting their buy-in, the higher likelihood the project will actually come to life.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The use of AI and digital intelligence to fight human trafficking is very exciting to me. Trafficking syndicates are smart and some of them are making enormous money on the exploitation of the vulnerable, and the trends we are seeing are that much of these sales are going online. We work with several tech firms in leveraging current technological advances to build case evidence for trafficking. This is a game-changer for our anti-trafficking field.
Not only is this an exciting trend for those here in the US, but The Exodus Road has helped to train and deliver some of this technology to law enforcement partners internationally, and we are seeing their casework efficacy greatly increase.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I am constantly self-evaluating. Every day and after every meeting or phone call, I ask myself, “How could I make it better?” I am in consistent debrief conversations with people that are close to me, especially with my wife Laura, about how I’m doing as a leader, both professionally and personally. I find that this self-awareness, even at an emotional level, is something that I have to make a margin for and is so valuable. Oftentimes, I will have a sense of a problem on the horizon just because I am so attuned to myself and others around me. This has proven so valuable to my own development and to the overall success of The Exodus Road.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t neglect your family for the sake of success. Despite what everyone around you might be saying that you have to sacrifice for your business, sacrificing your family is not worth it. Your relationships matter the most at the end of the day.
Work-life balance is so important, and I wish my younger self would have not brought work home as much. It’s stressful to launch a nonprofit fighting human trafficking, it’s complex, but I wish I would have done a better job in the earlier years of having better balance, moving a bit slower, and not bringing the stresses of work into home life as much.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Soul care and self-care will actually get you more success in the long run. I think most people think they have to sacrifice their own happiness and relationships and health to get success, but I’ve found that so many social entrepreneurs actually burn out and cause lots of damage because they aren’t healthy individuals. I have learned that the best path toward success for my anti-trafficking organization is actually prioritizing my own health — emotionally, physically, spiritually, and relationally.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I am a visionary, and so I have to have the space to dream and cast a vision for where the organization is heading next. I have to have the permission to innovate, and I find that as a visionary if I allow myself to get too bogged down in the daily decisions of implementation and execution, I begin to lose the ability to motivate those around me towards the future.
So for me, I have to get away from the office with the intent just to think and strategize and dream about the future. I take days where I’m outside in nature, workdays away from the office, weekend trips, vacations. I even go once a month to a beautiful resort where I walk the grounds for free and just strategize about future direction. If I don’t get away consistently for the purpose of envisioning the future, my work lacks passion and starts to become stale. I’ve had to learn that this getting away is not taking off, it’s actually a critical part of my work.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Decentralized management and empowering leaders throughout The Exodus Road have been the key to pushing it forward. Once I established the core program, I would find and hire quality national leaders to run it. I gave away so much power and authority – from finances to staff development — and that has allowed us to scale and grow quickly as an anti-trafficking nonprofit.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
In the early days at The Exodus Road, we overstaffed. That created an amazing amount of strain on the organization and leadership fatigue. It caused stress to raise more funding and stress when we had to retract and lose staff. If I had to do it over again, I would have only hired full-time positions when it was absolutely necessary.
Eventually, I learned to experience greater revenue thresholds before making hiring decisions. I learned and implemented a better system with our finance team to predict and track revenue and expenses, and I brought more people to the decision-making table before we hired new staff. Also, I implemented higher savings margins and better financial controls across the organization.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
We need to figure out how to better protect kids from sexual exploitation and sexually explicit materials on social media and the internet. I see over and over again, unsuspecting kids become victims of sex trafficking or exploitation right from their own phones – and their parents have no idea.
There are so many web services and products out there to help parents with digital safety, but so many are so difficult to implement and kids can learn how to get around the system. I’d love someone to create a platform that targets digital safety for kids across all channels and devices — even when they are away from their homes.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I took my wife on a nice date last week. It was a Tuesday, and we got dressed up and I treated her to a romantic evening out. We have three kids and both work full-time with The Exodus Road, and there’s always lots of chaos. It’s easy to miss each other, but I’ve found that date nights are some of the best investments I can make into marriage and our happiness. That date on Tuesday changed my entire week for the better.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I love Monday.com as a project management tool. Before we started using it, it was difficult to track where people were on projects or deliverables. We had used other project management tools before, but this one was much more robust and user-friendly — even for our international field teams to utilize at some level.
We utilized Monday at The Exodus Road to track meeting agendas and follow-up, onboarding processes, out-of-office days, content calendars, revenue and expense tracking, and to manage projects. It’s really been a game-changer for both our communication and productivity throughout the whole organization.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
My international work was most greatly shaped by the book When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. As I began to build the structure and ethos of The Exodus Road, this book really shaped the way I viewed relationships and development cross-culturally. It helped me to see the damage often caused by the traditional Western approach, how disempowering it can be to national communities. It helped me to understand that partnerships and equipping national leaders as the experts and the primary agents for change in their own countries were critical for systemic change.
What is your favorite quote?
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. “ – Theodore Roosevelt
I love this from Roosevelt because it describes my life. It’s been about taking great risks to do good in the world, to fight against human trafficking and all its darkness, and I’ve had my fair share of people in the stands launching their criticisms. But I’ve had to learn to overcome that and stay in the arena and keep fighting for the protection of the vulnerable. People in the stands won’t understand what it’s like to take the blows and the risks, to make the sacrifices of an entrepreneur. And that’s okay. Because life in the arena is really the only kind of life that moves great ideas forward.
- If you are a visionary leader, create space to get away just to strategize, think, and dream. You may feel like you are taking a break from work, but actually, it may be the most important work you do. Your organization needs your passionate, innovative ideas more than they need you to complete administrative tasks.
- The health of your relationships and your family are critical to your success as a social entrepreneur. Ultimately, healthy, balanced individuals are the only ones who can run the marathon, not the sprint, of social justice work.
- Self-awareness and self-evaluation should happen consistently. Asking yourself, “How can I make this better? How can I do better?” should be a mantra that pushes you to critically evaluate and then grow.
- If you’re doing international work, create systems and values that view cross-cultural individuals as partners and experts in their own communities.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.