Coss Marte is proof that second chances in life are possible. He went from being imprisoned for dealing drugs to starting his own fitness company, ConBody, in New York City inspired by the workout regime he developed when he did his time.
I sat down to chat with Coss about what his life was like growing up, entrepreneurship and fitness.
I wanted to get started with what was your life like prior to starting ConBody?
Prior to starting ConBody I was in prison. Life was definitely not easy. I had to deal with a lot in the system – being in solitary confinement and just trying to figure out what to do every single minute of the day.
You have 24 hours, you’re locked in a room and you have nothing but yourself to deal with. So I basically wrote, read a little bit and just worked out and that’s all you can do.
What was the culture like around, say, drugs and criminal activity where you were growing up?
The neighborhood I grew up in was extremely drug infested. Like there were drugs probably, you know, every ten steps you took I would see like a heroin needle on the ground, and you know, even before going to school I was skipping over heroin needles. I felt like at the time I thought it was a normal thing.
Coss’ mom never wanted him to get involved in drugs but it was hard with all that was going on in his neighborhood. Photo credit: Alex Iby
Were your parents more protective of you because of the sort of neighborhood that you grew up in?
My mom came here [the U.S.] from the Dominican Republic.
She had limited childcare so for me, the people that she would leave me with were the people on the corner. People that were selling drugs. That was my childcare! I was left to roam the streets and do what people told me to do. That’s how I grew up.
I mean my mom didn’t want me to get involved with drugs. She’s never been involved with that, but it was all around me.
Then I had family members that I looked up to that were messing around.
How did you get involved into that activity at such a young age?
My cousins were the people that I looked up to. They were already selling drugs and dealing on the streets.
People would ask me, “Yo, can you get me some weed?” And I was like, “Alright.”
So it was another supply and demand. That was the first time I had seen more money than I could probably ever make in a job as a thirteen year old.
In some articles I read it says that you were making as much as $2 million per year.
By the age of nineteen I was banking over $2 million a year. I made a whole delivery service where I had everybody on my team wear business suits, ties and we gave out about 10,000 business cards.
So you’re nineteen and you have $2 million. How does a teenager know how to use that money responsibly?
I didn’t know how to use that money. I was doing stupid stuff. I was spending 20 – 30 grand a night You just buy clothes, jewellery, cars it doesn’t stop!
How did you make that switch from dealing drugs on the streets to starting what is now ConBody?
I mean it all started while I was incarcerated. I lost so many pounds in six months after doctors told me I could die because of my cholesterol levels.
They said I probably had five years to live and I was sentenced to seven years. I told them I’m not gonna die in prison!
I started working out and I eventually lost so many pounds in six months. I then I helped over twenty inmates lose over a thousand pounds combined.
It was now until the end of my incarceration where I started thinking about doing ConBody. I wrote out a fake mini business plan and started doing the workouts in the park. Eventually I got in touch with Catherine Hoke from Defy Ventures and I started making a habit.
They helped me obtain funds to open up my studio, and just move forward from there.
What sort of business strategies did you implement from your illicit street business into developing ConBody?
I basically implemented the majority of the things. I went out and guerrilla marketed. I went and made 10,000 flyers and hit the streets with no shame.
I went out there out of desperation because nobody wanted to hire me. I have nothing to lose and I went and made it happen.
One of the things that people say when they go for pitching to venture capitalists is how terrifying that is. Gwyneth Paltrow, who started her own company called Goop, said that she was terrified, and the venture capitalists took no mercy on her even though she was a celebrity. How did you feel when you were pitching to Defy Ventures about ConBody?
It was extremely nerve-wrecking. It was one of the most hardest things you have to do, but I practised so much and really did my homework. My pitch rolled off my tongue as soon as I opened my mouth up.
What was the business training that you received from Defy Ventures involve?
The business training was basically like an MBA course. It’s taught by Harvard and Stanford MBA professors.
Also, it has a holistic approach to it in terms of bringing a family in and reuniting yourself with your family members and those people that you probably hurt in the past to redeem that trust again. I say it’s one of the best non-profit organisations out there.
One of the things that Catherine has said was that Defy Ventures wasn’t just about business, but it was also about helping build up the confidence of incarcerated individuals. Is that something that you experienced going through the program?
Definitely. One thing that Catherine Hoke used to make us do is ask twenty people from the streets and take their names and emails.
You only have 30 minutes to do it. It forced you to get out there and once you do it continuously you start building trusting yourself.
So that seems quite similar to another story that we had on the blog last year. We had the American MMA fighter Justin Wren on the blog. He was talking about how he developed drug misuse during his career, but found greater purpose when he was able to build wells for people in Africa.
One of the things we spoke about was a religious construct known as ‘Theodicy’. Why does a good God let bad things happen? So from all of the challenges that you had been through in your life, how do you make sense of a good God letting bad things happen?
I mean for me it totally makes sense.
I was sitting in a prison cell where I thought that I was not coming home for years, but I began reading the Bible while I was in there, and I started realizing what I was doing was really wrong.
It really changed my whole perspective on life.
You know, one thing I really learned from Defy was to trust the process. What I got from that was basically do the right thing and everything will come to you. It doesn’t matter if I have five dollars in my pocket or I have a negative account balance. I’m gonna wake up and I’m gonna keep moving and continue surviving.
You know, because I kept pushing forward and kept hustling I was seeing growth. Now I have seventeen employees. It’s been a crazy journey. I’ve only been home a little bit over four years.
How does it feel to see that you’ve built up this business on your own in comparison to all of the things that you’ve accumulated before? Like all of the cars and money. How does that compare?
Those were just riches of material things. That just satisfies a short term feeling because once you get it you keep wanting more things, but I feel like what I have now is worth way more.
It’s something that I’m really leaving a stamp in my lifetime and helping people coming out of prison find jobs. Help my employees get shelter and help them find other jobs.I feel it’s a mission. It’s a journey. It’s worth way more than any material thing!
What is worth noting is that ConBody has a zero recidivism rate. Formally incarcerated individuals do not re-offend when they become employees. Why do you think that is?
We just keep it real. People that come and work for us, it’s not only a job, it’s a family. So we’ve had people that are struggling and homeless and all this stuff but it’s a support unit where if one falls we all grab them and pick them back up. On top of that we provide financial assistance. People that work for us have a living wage where they can support themselves and live in a nice area.
What are some of the incredible things that the employees who were formerly incarcerated have achieved?
Sultan Malik is our senior trainer and was my first employee.
He did fourteen years in prison, seven years in solitary confinement. He’s buying a house now. You know, and for him to come home and be a home owner that’s just an incredible success!
I got another guy who is homeless living in the studio floor. He’s slept on my couch a few times because he had nowhere to go and was living in a homeless shelter.
Now has he owns an apartment and two vehicles. This was in a very short amount of time.
A common misconception some people have is that you have to be fit or muscular to join a gym. How do you encourage people to work out if they have these self-limiting beliefs about what you should be to go to a gym?
We have people who are over 300 lb who come to our studio, but then I also have strong people as well. It all starts with just taking a step.
I tell people, “just work out, make a goal for yourself, work out for a week. After that week is done, work out for two weeks. After that two weeks, work out for a month. And then once you get in that routine, you won’t want to miss another day. You’ll regret missing another day.”
Some of the high profiled clients of ConBody have included women from the Real Housewives in New York. How did you attract such high profiled clients?
I met Carol, one of the New York Housewives, through a mutual friend when we had dinner.
At first, I didn’t know who she was, because I never really watched the show, but I found out what she was doing.
I spoke to her and then I eventually just asked her: ”So when you bringing the whole Real Housewives over here?” They basically came and started working out with us.
What does a typical workout involve?
It’s all body weight. It contains cardio and strength training.
You utilize the little space that you have.
We have our workout videos online now so other can workout too. They’re on ConBody.com now and you can just subscribe for five dollars a month.
It’s simple and gets you moving in non-stop, high intensity workouts.
I want you now to imagine that you are in a room with eighteen year old Cos. What would you tell him?
I would tell him that there’s other options. I would tell him to put that stuff down and look at outside the box. You know, there’s a bigger picture out there. There’s more in life and whatever you attain with that money, it’s not worth anything at the end of the day. You know, you could lose it overnight.
Coss will be releasing his first book “ConBody: The Revolutionary Bodyweight Prison Boot Camp, Born from an Extraordinary Story of Hope” on March 20, 2018. Pre-orders can be made today through Amazon.
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