Coss Marte On Solitary Confinement & Starting A Successful Social Enterprise As An Ex-Offender
Coss Marte is the Founder of ConBody, an exceptional business offering a unique fitness program from studios in New York and also online.
The story behind the workout is almost as good as the workout itself. While serving a prison sentence for dealing drugs, Coss’ health deteriorated and his survival was at stake. In his tiny cell, Coss developed a fitness program that could be completed with just body weight resistance, without the need for equipment. He lost a significant amount of weight, and feels his workouts saved his life. He then taught over 20 prisoners how they could lose weight and improve their fitness. Coss had been brought up in poverty and thought the best way to make money was selling drugs. It took his time in prison to understand that he could do something different. Coss began to believe that his purpose was to give back instead of destroying the people around him and the best way he could do that was through fitness.
Upon release from jail, Coss started ConBody, where he has utilised his entrepreneurial skills in a positive way, employing formerly incarcerated people to teach fitness classes and creating a successful company. Now he brings this exercise program to his studios in NYC and online through ConBody Live.
Coss started Con Body to help people lead healthier lives. He is also changing the lives of ex-cons by giving them a job and helping to stop them from reoffending. The mission of ConBody is to bridge a gap between young professionals and formerly incarcerated individuals.
Coss discusses how he went from earning $2 million a year dealing drugs, to doing time in prison, then starting a social enterprise which employs ex-offenders and gets them back on track.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Tom Allen] - To get things started could you please share a bit about your life story and what led you down the path of running a social enterprise?
[Coss Marte] - I grew up in the Lower East Side in the Eighties and Nineties when it was a very, very heavily drug infested neighbourhood. As a kid, growing up under poverty, my mum didn't have much and she really couldn't provide for me in the way I wanted to be provided for. So I went and got it on my own. I started dealing drugs at 13. I started this whole operation, drug, cocaine delivery service and, at 19, I was making over $2 million a year. It was a crazy time, but it was not until everything ended and I was incarcerated at 23, facing a seven year sentence, and being told that I was probably going to die in prison because of my health issues. I was told that, because of my cholesterol levels, I could probably die of a heart attack within five years, and that's what woke me up to start moving.
It’s a confronting story. So essentially, this news got you doing exercise and led to ConBody today. Tell us a little bit more about ConBody and how you're supporting these ex-offenders.
I'm providing economical opportunity. My whole goal, the mission of ConBody, is to hire as many people coming out of the prison system, to teach fitness classes, to work our front desk, to do our janitorial work. So we've created a unique community of people that's been in the system that really changes perspectives, and changes how they're viewed as people that have committed crimes in the past. And we've seen the change where, if our clients who've never met anybody that have been incarcerated, they'll come in a little bit nervous and scared and they'll be, "I dunno what I'm getting into", but once they meet us and give us a handshake or a high five, everything just changes and they start realising that we're just regular human beings that committed mistakes.
You've managed to attract celebrities like Usher and you've also opened a successful location at Saks Fifth Avenue department store in New York, which is a really expensive, boutique type department store. I'm sure you've seen a lot of big challenges along the way. What have some of these challenges been and how have you worked your way around them?
It's been really hard just to make everything work. I mean, it's non-stop... it's not just a regular business that I provide opportunities and job employment. I'm dealing with people that, when they come out of the system, they have nowhere to live, they lack shelter, they have barely any clothes, they need some money, and then, on top of that, dealing with parole issues, where parole is stipulating them on a curfew, limiting them from doing a whole bunch of other stuff and that's been a real struggle that I've dealt with overcome.
Totally. So have you seen a movement of this type of employment based social enterprise in greater New York and, if so, how's that been evolving over the last few years? Where do you see that movement heading?
I think socially impacting businesses are going to be long-lasting businesses, just because they have a give back feeling, and today's millennial is investing in companies that give back. They think twice of where they're shopping at. For example, I mean, everybody uses Tom’s Shoes. It's a give back. So when they go in there they buy these shoes, they're telling the story of, "Oh, I gave a shoe to somebody in Argentina" or wherever, and that's something that's really impacting.
I think the regular young population, primarily millennials, want to be a part of change. And so I feel like socially enterprising businesses are extremely important.
So what advice would you give to ex-offenders looking to start a business or other entrepreneurs who haven't had the time in prison? What sort of mindset do they need? What do they need to do to make something successful?
It takes a lot of guts.
I'm going to tell you the truth right now. You're probably going to fail and you're going to keep failing and you're going to keep failing and you're going to keep failing, and you might hit, you know? It's a game. We call it a batting average when playing baseball, (which is a better version of cricket), but it's hard to hit a 90 mile per hour fast ball coming down, a 100 mile per hour fast ball, and you might swing 10 times, but you'll only probably hit it once, you know? And you never know where it's going to go, but that's how entrepreneurship is.
For anybody that's trying to start their own business, just prove the concept really small.
If you want to start a major retail fashion store, you've only got to open up a shop, make a T-shirt, buy a screen print, print it out and try to sell it to your brothers and sisters, you know what I mean? Put it out there. Don't be scared of hiding your idea too 'cause a lot of people say, "Oh, I can't tell anybody about this until I get funding".
Put it out there. Don't be scared.
Whoever's going to steal it, they're going to steal it, and then you're probably going to be better than them.
There was a funny story told just earlier today about taking lift rides so that you could essentially hustle, and coming out of prison and having to work a variety of different jobs to essentially test and grow ConBody. So what, for you personally, was one of the biggest challenges at that really early stage in setting up ConBody?
I had an idea and I just did it here in the park where I really didn't have any overheads except just for me showing up. I didn't have to pay any rent. I had to get a park permit but the park didn't really mess around with that and so long as I had a small crowd I was okay. But challenges, I think, would be taking that next step. Actually I met this guy yesterday and had dinner with him, his name's Mick. He told me it's a lateral move every single time. It's like, going straight, you're taking one step up; straight, one step up; straight, one step up. And I've seen that, when he was explaining that, it was like I was in the park, I took a step up; went to rent the ballet studio, took a step up; went to sub-lease a space; went a step up; opened up my own location, step up; now, second location, step up.
And so it might be a struggle and it might be really, really hard to live day by day and there's days I want to give up, but I just keep moving and I know that if I eventually keep showing up and keep delivering a great product, it's going to work.
You've managed to really harness that strong story, and use that as part of your business and your marketing and communications.
I imagine part of that might be measuring the impact that you're making through the people that you're employing or the amount of people who are burning X amount of calories. So what advice would you give to others about measuring and communicating that impact, and telling a story as well?
I think telling my journey and my story is ... I would say, I had it within me, I lived this life and this is a real story, but it's learning how to shorten it and different types of versions, re-practising how to pitch. I can tell you my story in 10 seconds, 30 seconds, two minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 and 20, but I practise, and I wrote a 30 second version, or a minute version. I really wrote things down and tried to memorise it and understand the timing, because when I'm in that Uber drive, seeing somebody, I don't know how far they're going to go, but it might be five minutes and I'm only going to have that five minute opportunity to speak with that person. I'll always start off with a simple question, "You look like you work out. Do you?", and he'll be, "Yeah, maybe. I go to this spa". "Well, I'm the CEO and founder of ConBody. This is what I do", blah, blah, blah, and I'll hit him with that pitch.
Or I'm in the elevator and I've only got 10 seconds and, "I started a prison style bootcamp that hires formerly incarcerated individuals", blah, blah, blah. And so it's really practising, practising and getting it down. I used to record myself on Youtube and I still have a couple of embarrassing videos where I'm recording myself and I'm having my son hold the camera and he's laughing, and I would just pitch in front of him and then I'll just send the video out to people and have them critique me. And that's what I would do.
Tell us a little bit about the lives of some of the people that you're employing at the moment. A bit of their experience and how you've seen a change through being employed in a business like ConBody.
I think we run an unconventional workplace in terms of it's not only your regular nine to five job. You're not going to come in there and just spend time and then bounce and clock out. We make change and we help. There was one time where I had four air mattresses in the gym 'cause there was a couple of guys who had no place to stay. They didn't want to live in the shelter because the shelter had more drugs than inside and they wanted to be in a positive environment. So I blew up air mattresses in the studio and deflated them at 5:30 in the morning because classes start at 6 a.m. So it was hustle, and I still have situations like that and I've seen Sultan Malik, who is our senior trainer, become top trainer in the country. Sarita did 22 years in prison and you could never tell that she did a day in her life and has the biggest smile on her face, and I hired her the first day coming out of the prison system.
But, yes, stories like that, they're endless and it's a team that we know that will want to stay together because this is larger than ourselves.
So it's really about building a culture?
Beyond ConBody then, what other inspiring projects, initiatives or businesses have you come across that you believe are also creating some great positive social impact?
I think there's a few. One of my friends started Just Soul. It's basically a soulful catering company, Caribbean food, and she hires people coming out of the prison system to run her catering business. She's crushing it. Another guy, Mike; Mikey likes his ice cream, he's doing better than me. He should be the one talking here, but he started an ice cream shop and he says he's, "Hiring people one scoop at a time". But he also deals with the prison population and he's going back in and teaching guys how to make ice cream and things of that nature.
So there's a few businesses..
He’s creating clients for you for them to work out!
Yeah, a tall guy. He's pretty big. I got him on a diet right now.
To finish things off then, books, podcasts, websites, resources, what would you recommend to our listeners?
Buy my book. I came out with a book called 'ConBody' which states my whole story and my whole transformational journey. It doesn't really go too back in the back past, but it starts from where I really changed in solitary confinement.
Podcast: 'Ear Hustle'. I don't know if you ever heard of that, but 'Ear Hustle' is a podcast that I like to listen to that ... recorded inside San Quentin's Correctional Facility, and it's an inmate that partnered with a volunteer telling stories of inmates inside the prison system and how they're living day to day situations, and is very, very interesting.