072. Do the Time to Change Lives with Coss Marte

By on October 22, 2019

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The Do a Day Podcast from Bryan Falchuk

Coss Marte started selling drugs at age 13 and by 19, he says, he was making $2 million a year. After serving a prison sentence, he founded a “prison style” fitness boot camp called ConBody.

Coss, a 3-time felon, grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He was regularly exposed to drugs, violence and poverty. His role models quickly became drug dealers that introduced him to the lucrative business. Starting at the age of 13, he began selling marijuana and cocaine near his neighborhood corner store. At the age of 23, Coss was caught in a drug sting and sentenced to seven years in prison.

At 5′ 8″ and 230 pounds, Coss was informed by prison doctors if he did not begin leading a healthier lifestyle he “might not live to be released.” As a father, Coss didn’t want to die behind bars, so he began working out. Over a few months, he  lost over 70 pounds. He also garnered the ridicule of others in the prison yard, but also the respect and interest of some. As more and more people came out to join him in his workouts, he helped a group of inmates together lose 1,000 pounds.

After an incident in which an officer believed Coss was charging at him (in actuality, Coss was bending over to pick up his glasses that had fallen), three years were tacked onto Coss’ prison sentence, and he was put into Solitary Confinement. While in solitary, Coss created a business plan to make his prison workout approach a viable business on the outside.

Despite the recognition he gets today, having been at the Espy Awards (we had to reschedule our original recording so he could attend), being featured on The Real Housewives of New York, and tons of magazine articles on what he’s doing, it wasn’t easy. It was a long, slow struggle to find success, with a lot of blockers along the way. Today, ConBody has a growing, successful business model, and also helps other ex-cons create a sustainable life that not only supports them and their families, but also helps them stay on the right side of the law. Of the 40 people who work for or have worked for ConBody, none has gone back to prison. Coss has created more than just a fitness business, he’s created a social enterprise in a sustainable way, and shares how it all happened with us on the show.

Key Points from the Episode with Coss Marte:

  • Coss is the founder and owner of ConBody, a prison-style bootcamp program using bodyweight exercise to help people lose weight and stay healthy.
  • It was born of his own struggle with his weight when he was in prison – an experience that shaped who he is today.
  • Growing up in the Lower East Side in the 80s and 90s, Coss saw drugs all around him, and the lifestyle the drug dealers were living was enticing.
  • In the late 1990s, he was one of the biggest dealers in NYC, making over $2 million a year.
  • He ultimately got arrested and put in prison at a time when he was not in good shape, and doctor confronted him with it.
  • The prison doctor told him he was in danger of having a heart attack within five years – and he was just 24.
  • He was overweight, but not terribly so. It the full picture of he was eating, how movement wasn’t a part of his life, and the smoking and drinking he had been doing while on the outside.
  • He had put on the weight when his now-ex-wife was pregnant with their son, with him growing his belly along with her, as he puts it.
  • As a father, hearing the news from the doctor hit him particularly hard. Not only was he not there for his son while in prison, but the idea of never being there for him or being such a bad role model of health for his son really hit him hard.
  • As an active kid who was very into sports, Coss knew how to work out, so he decided he’d take action.
  • He first joined a military boot camp style program called SHOCK that the guards ran where they’d work you super hard to try to break you.
  • They’d make participants run in their boxers in the snow in Buffalo.
  • Coss decided to build his own approach, and just started running in the yard. Other inmates made fun of him for it, but he just kept doing it.
  • Another inmate, nicknamed “Bus” due to his size, joined in. As the days went along, others joined, too.
  • He helped 20 other inmates lose over 1,000 pounds together. Bus alone lost 80 pounds (and lost more later, too).
  • Coss found him in solitary confinement after an altercation with an officer (which also extended his sentence by a year).
  • In solitary, he found the space to think about his life, how he’d landed in prison multiple times, and how he needed to break this cycle.
  • When he got out, he had nothing – he slept on his mother’s couch, and had nothing.
  • He woke up every morning to work out in the park, and would start trying to rope people into it with him.
  • He’d have one or two people each time, a couple of times a day, and slowly it started growing over the course of a year.
  • Coss eventually started to rent out small spaces, and used the whole prison concept to explain away the roughness and discomfort of it all.
  • Well and Good did a story on Coss, and asked what his plan was, which inspired him to try to make an official business of it.
  • No banks or landlords would support Coss, so he struggled to get funding or a space.
  • A buddhist monk gave him a chance, letting Coss open the first ConBody location under her temple, which they stayed in until recently as they outgrew the space.
  • Coss’s journey with ConBody hasn’t been all roses, despite landing in an ad for an insurance company or being part of an episode of The Real Housewives of New York.
  • There was no straight hockey stick of growth, and Coss says he doesn’t believe anyone who claims their business grew smoothly like that.
  • He went through a program that kept reinforcing to trust the process. That’s a notion that really resonated with him as he looked at everything.
  • Looking at his mother, who is a huge inspiration to Coss, he sees how she put in hard work for decades, providing for her family, having everything she needs and being happy. It’s not about having a mansion or fancy cars. It’s about having enough, being content, and doing the work in the process.
  • In his own experience, there have been tons of challenges and ups and downs – law suits, slow periods in the business, partnerships that break down, etc – but you keep showing up, keep doing the process, and it comes around.
  • It may not be easy, but it works.
  • A major aspect of the business for Coss is not just about helping people get and stay fit. It’s about helping the ex-cons who work for him so their lives can stabilize and thrive.
  • Every employee has been through the penal system, and he works to support them. Coss setup ConBody housing at subsidized rates ($600 a month in NYC is unheard of), gives them stable employment, and provides the environment for them to thrive.
  • Now, the mission is much bigger. It’s not just about building the gym or bootcamp business, it’s about building that as a place to support people as they come out of prison to build new lives. That is a much bigger purpose.
  • Coss’s current focus is to raise a seed round of funding to build a franchise model so he can spread the approach across the country.
  • While he gets franchise requests, he also gets outreach from criminal justice programs around the world who want to partner to use the model to help rehab and support people.
  • Beyond employment and housing, Coss also gets support for employees (he has 40-something of them right now) with parole issues and more. His goal is to reduce the recidivism rate meaningfully.
  • As he looks at expansion, Coss just opened a new ConBody location in London, so the impact is definitely intended to be global.
  • ConBody is a family, with activities and openness to bring people’s kids in and have a place where they can all connect without judgment.
  • Coss is still Coss. He’s tough, rough and direct (but in a good way). He’s so passionate about helping others, and it was all inspired by this moment where his mortality resonated with him. It didn’t have to, but it did.
  • Coss’s book, Con Body, and monthly virtual workout program (for just $5 a month, which is crazy cheap!) are two ways you can support Coss’s efforts, but also support your own.
  • One other thing to watch for is the upcoming docu-series on the ConBody process, which is sure to be amazing. Watch for it in 2020 (I’ll update this page when it’s released).

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