From Drug Kingpin To Fitness CEO On 5th Avenue
We interviewed ConBody CEO Coss Marte on how he went from selling drugs on a street corner to running a company on 5th Avenue, alongside racks of designer clothes and shoes
When people think of life behind bars, it wouldn’t surprise me if they think inmates traffic dirty panties and bury guards in corn fields on the daily, thanks to Orange is the New Black’s sensationalized portrayal of prison life. Making its grand return to Netflix for its fifth season last Friday, the show truly is binge-worthy TV at its finest. That said, some of its depictions ring very true to the reality of serving time, like how difficult it is to assimilate back into society upon release.
Former NYC drug kingpin and inmate Coss Marte is on a mission to change that with his prison-style fitness studio that opened its doors (or should I say, cell gates) at Saks’ Fifth Avenue’s The Wellery in May. In the 16,600-square-foot health mecca teeming with high-end designer clothes, salt rooms and meditation classes, ConBody stands out as a refreshingly real take on fitness, decked out like a jail, with cell bars, metal fences and a backdrop for taking post-workout mugshots.
But before you groan and assume that it’s just another bourgeois boot camp with trainers sporting cute jail-striped jumpsuits and pony-tails, know that these workouts are actually taught by former inmates themselves. What’s more, they incorporate the same no-frills exercises Coss carried out when he was locked up in a 9 x 6-feet solitary confinement cell with nothing but a bed and a bible.
“Unlike other trendy fitness classes that are all the rage at the moment, we don’t use any equipment—just our own body weight. Also, there’s a greater purpose behind what we do. We’re not just working out; we’re solving a real problem,” Coss said.
I’ll admit, the story of how Coss got to where he is today could be mistaken for your quintessential Orange Is The New Black flashback. Having grown up dodging the odd heroin syringe and bullet in New York’s LES in the 90s, Coss was already primed to peddle drugs on his very own street corner by age 12.
“As a kid, my mom was always like, “If you don’t ask, you don’t eat,” so I was always hustling. I would go around collecting bottles from other people’s apartments and go down to the bodega to change them for nickels,” he said.
By his late teens, he’d moved on from nickels to overseeing a two-million-dollar cocaine-and-marijuana empire, affording him a lavish array of ‘all that glitters’—whether it was cars, bling or women.
“I used to spend $2,000 on Louis Vuitton shirts, but I’d never do that now. The only material thing I miss a little bit is going fast in a car!” he said.
At age 20, Coss was busted and sent to the slammer for seven years. If facing incarceration wasn’t enough, after receiving a full physical upon entering jail, doctors told the then-overweight inmate that he only had five years to live due to high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
“This was the reality check I needed to get in shape. I ended up becoming the Forrest Gump of the prison yard, running circuits every morning despite sneers from other inmates,” he said.
In just six months, Coss lost 70 pounds, and helped 20 other inmates lose 1000 pounds collectively. However, just two months before his release, an altercation with a correctional officer landed him in solitary confinement and tacked another year onto his sentence.
“I was devastated. I’d just had a visit with my family and they were all so excited to see me. I wrote them a 10 page letter to them telling them I wasn’t coming home and to forget about me because I thought I was going to be trapped in the system for a long time. After I finished the letter, I realized I didn’t even have a stamp to send it, so I was even more distraught and threw the letter into the corner of the room.”
A week later, he received a letter from his sister, offering solace.
“She’s very religious, so she told me to read Psalm 91 from the Bible and I was like, ‘I don’t even believe in God. This is not what I want to hear right now. I want to hear how you’re going to get me out of here!’”
So Coss just lay in his cell day-in day-out. The only interaction he had with the outside world was when guards would throw food at him through the cell slot.
“If I wasn’t there to catch it, I just had to eat it off the ground, with the bugs and spiders”
After a few days passed, he decided to pick up the bible.
“As soon as I flipped to Psalm 91, a stamp fell out of it. I felt chills all over my body. Then I started reading the Bible from front to back, and realized that what I had been doing with my life was affecting the lives and families of so many people.”
Coss felt so much regret that he cried for the first time in years.
“But in that moment, I also felt freedom. That cell was about 110 degrees, but everytime I opened the Bible, I felt like I was transported to a breezy, 60-degree beach in the Dominican Republic. So I started praying and asking God how I can pay back all my wrongdoings. That’s when I had the lightbulb moment to start ConBody. To give back.””
And that, he did. Initially, to his own son, by developing their relationship when he was released a year later.
“Because I’d been gone for so long, he didn’t really know who I was. I was just somebody that he’d visit once a month, who he’d see in shackles, and cry. “
Technology was also a big change to adjust to, because six years is practically 60 years in Silicon Valley-time.
“When I got out, I was released to Buffalo International Airport and I was looking for a payphone. I couldn’t find one anywhere so I asked somebody if I could borrow their phone to make a call. They passed me this touchscreen thing and I was like, ‘Sorry, I need a phone please,’ because I didn’t know it was a phone! It was such a shock. I didn’t even know Facebook, Instagram or Twitter existed!”
But more than anything, trying to secure a job when he was obligated to tick the “Have you been convicted of a crime?” box, was the biggest challenge.
“I went to every single retail store along 34th and 42nd streets, but as soon as they saw that I was a former felon, they always said, “We’ll get back to you,” but they never did.”
One time Coss even lied on his application to test if he’d land an interview. It worked.
“Then later when they found out I had a criminal history, they said, ‘The reason why we can’t hire you is because you lied,’ but I was like, ‘If I didn’t lie, I would never have gotten my foot in the door in the first place!’”
From his experiences, the prison system sets ex-cons up to fail.
“Prisons are financially driven. It’s a business. My job in prison was working for the DMV, so when you call the DMV for New York State, you’re actually calling an inmate. I was only getting paid $20 a month, working 40 hours a week. That equates to less than 10 cents an hour! I call it modern day slavery because corporations are capitalizing primarily off minorities.”
According to Coss, prison culture is still about punishing the problem, not correcting the problem.
“It’s called a “correctional facility” for a reason,” he said.
In 2014, less than a year after he was released, he opened his first ConBody studio on the same street corner where he used to hustle drugs.
Although the business has really taken off over the past three years—heck, he was even featured on Saturday Night Live on May 20— he’s come across a few haters.
“There was an incident when I was about to teach a class and I told my story to everyone and then tried to give a woman a high-five, saying “Don’t be scared. I only did 6 years in prison!” She screamed, “Don’t touch me,” and picked up her things and walked away. It was so embarrassing because everybody else from the class was there watching.”
This is why Coss believes the whole ex-con stigma should be smashed, one boot camp-style slug at a time.
“I mean, come on, I’m now at Saks. This is crazy. I have tons of people supporting me and helping me along the way. People can change. This is what it’s all about. Giving people a second chance.”
Today Coss speaks at conferences across the country, eliciting standing ovations from crowds. In fact, it was a chance encounter at New York’s FounderMade summit in February, where he met Misha Vayner, Saks’ manager of leased departments, about The Wellery venture.
He also speaks at schools and juvenile detention centers in the New York tri state area to deter young people from going down the road he did.
“Sometimes I bring my trainer Sultan Malik with me who has been stabbed 30 times and shot, and even still has bullets still left in his body. He’ll take off his shirt and tell the kids: “We’re not going to stop what you’re doing. We have no control over you, but just be prepared for this shit.”
Often the teenagers are so inspired that they come into the studio to work out with Coss and even become his Facebook friends. He also frequently visits prisons to train inmates to become certified trainers.
Next on the horizon for ConBody is a book called ‘ConBody: Do the Time’ to be published in 2018, and a documentary film slated for release in 2019.
“A famous Academy Award-winning director has been filming me for the past two and a half years. We’re also launching kickstarter in a week to raise money for the ConBody app where people will be able to book classes, buy apparel, and access the workout videos,” he said.
Down the line, Coss is also planning to expand his cell footprint within and beyond the concrete jungle.
“I’m looking to open up in Chelsea and Williamsburg, then Pittsburgh, Boston, D.C., Miami and LA, the whole West Coast and everything in the middle!”
So, there you have it. The future of the fitness industry could actually be in the hands of prison inmates, not AI bots.
And for the Orange is the New Black fans out there, when the orange jumpsuit-clad inmates made their fifth Netflix debut last week, Coss was sharing your excitement.
“I love the show. Obviously they exaggerate some things like the lake escape scene, but it’s TV after all. I’m addicted!”
All Images: Mathias Wasik | wasikphoto.com
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Horace Luke is a co-founder and chief executive officer of Gogoro, a start-up utilizing the power of mobile connectivity and data analytics to transform energy distribution and management in the world’s cities. He has overseen product development and corporate strategy from the outset, including the soon to be released Gogoro Smartscooter™. Previously, Horace served as chief innovation officer at HTC, where he played an instrumental role in leading the company's transformation from a white label hardware manufacturer to one of the most desirable and innovative mobile phone brands in the world. Horace’s previous employers also include Microsoft and Nike. Check out his exclusive interview with PSFK & HP/HP Matter here!