Fitness can change your body, but for today’s LEARN speaker, Coss Marte, fitness has changed his entire life for the better – as well as the life of many other ex-convicts like him.
His business-turned-movement, ConBody, is a prison-style bootcamp that uses only participants’ bodyweight and a cell-size space. His prison-chic studios (complete with bars and sparse décor) are popping up all over NYC, including at Saks Fifth Avenue; and he’s launched online workouts for those further afield. Most importantly, all sessions are taught by ex-convicts – who, thanks to Coss, are now less likely to re-enter the prison system for lack of opportunity elsewhere.
Taking to the MATTER stage, he shared with PUREists the story of how a six-year stint in prison inspired him to not only get in shape (and help others do the same), but to address an important social issue. His message to PUREists? “Be more open.” We caught up with him back-stage for a post-talk debrief…
You spent six years in prison for dealing drugs. To what extent would you say that experience defined you as a person?
It had an incredible impact, not only on me, but also on my family – and primarily my son, who I basically raised while I was behind bars. I mean, I learned a lot while I was in there. I re-educated myself; read a lot of books; taught myself a lot of exercises and stuff like that, which helped me start the business. But I think, primarily, it was just me learning what I was doing was wrong. I never thought that what I was doing was wrong. I always thought, you know, f*** the system – I felt like the system was against me; but I learned that I had a big responsibility.
There are a lot of things that I could take away from the community that I built while I was in there – the people that I met; the people that I interact with today. It was a crazy up-and-down experience. There were depressing moments; mad moments; there were mad moments that I was happy, laughing and building a team of friendship, you know?
Would you say you came out of prison a different person to the one who went in?
Yes. It didn’t hit me until I had a moment: I had a spiritual awakening that really changed my whole view on life. I started looking at life in a very different way. I started asking myself, “Do I really need to do this? Do I need to go back to this world in order to live?” You know, knowing that’s not the only path to make it, even if I had all these strikes against me.
Where did the inspiration for ConBody come from?
When I went into prison, the doctors told me that I might die because of my health issues. I was really overweight; my cholesterol levels were through the roof; and if I didn’t start eating correctly and exercising, they told me I probably would die in prison within five years.
But I was not going to die in that place. Obviously, in prison you can’t eat the best food; but I began working out obsessively for, like, three hours a day. I lost 70 pounds in six months. Then I helped over 20 inmates to get in shape, too. I took that formula that I was teaching them in the prison yard and decided that this is the way I wanted to give back to society – through the world of fitness – and also give back to the people who were inside as well, by giving them an employment opportunity.
What was behind your motivation to help others get in shape? What, if anything, did you get out of it?
It happened organically. I was basically just running the yard – I would start by running and then I would smoke a cigarette right after, on one of the benches in the prison yard. This guy came up to me and asked for some of the cigarette. We started a conversation, and he was like, “I want to start running with you.” We used to call him ‘Bus’, because he weighed over, like, 300 pounds.
I was like, “Alright.” So, we started running the yard. Then he got two of his friends, who started running and working out with us too. From there, it just started expanding. We got a whole group of guys together, and we would form a circle and do a few exercises together – stuff like that. So, the camaraderie started building organically. It wasn’t like I was going up to inmates and saying, “Look, I’ve got this new workout programme. You’ve got to do it.” It was just positive energy coming together.
Is that camaraderie something you also find in ConBody as it is today, with your clients?
Oh, definitely. It’s an incredible thing to watch – to watch it grow, and to continue to see more people getting involved in the communities. This is definitely not like your regular gym; it’s more of a community that comes together – and meets up, even after working out, and hangs out, and builds amazing relationships. They notice that we help them work out, but they also voluntarily help us in different ways – like with marketing and branding, and all types of different aspects. I have lawyers; I’ve got accountants; I’ve got all types of people doing pro bono stuff for us, which is amazing.
At what point did you realise that there was potential to create a real business out of ConBody?
I don’t know, I didn’t know it was going to be a real business. I just knew that I wanted to do it. I came home, and the first day I came back to the same neighbourhood that I grew up in, which was a changing neighbourhood. (It was a very drug-infested, bad neighbourhood before.) I went out to a park and started doing the workouts right there; then from there, I just started catching the eyes of other people.
I started going up to people and asking them, “Come join us?” Every day I would have a group of people and I just started expanding it from there. We started renting out studio spaces, eventually opening up a location in the exact same corner where I sold drugs and got in trouble at. It was crazy.
I read a quote where you said, “We’re not just working out, we’re solving a real problem.” For those who might not be aware of it, what is that problem – and how are you solving it?
I think the major problem is really breaking down the stereotypes of people viewing formerly incarcerated people as not human beings – as locked-up, caged animals who are killers and rapists, and just doing negative stuff. We’ve changed that view and told people, “You, too, have committed mistakes. You just didn’t get caught. If you think about it, you’ve probably smoked weed; you probably got in a car while you were drinking. You could’ve landed in our shoes – we just got caught for it, and now we’re being known for the worst thing we’ve ever done.” We need to change that view.
On top of that, we’re creating a movement by hiring people coming out of prison, because the recidivism rate is so high, you know? 76 per cent of people coming out of prison are returning to prison within five years, and the stats just keep getting worse. So, that’s one huge aspect that we’re really tackling.
You’ve opened a studio at Saks Fifth Avenue, which is obviously so close and yet, in some ways, so far away from where you grew up. Do you think ConBody is, in some way, uniting these two worlds – this luxury, high-end set of people and values, with this other set of people who might be removed from that?
Oh yes, that’s definitely bringing the people together and a lot of people want (like I mentioned before) to get involved – they feel responsible, in a way, for changing this whole system. Because the government we have today is making things worse, you know? If we don’t make changes ourselves, then we just sit around and become part of the problem, by just being stagnant and waiting for whoever else to make a change. That change is never going to come unless we do something about it, you know?
We’ve had old ladies who walk by Saks Fifth Avenue and watch us, and they’re like, “What the hell is going on?” Then we’ll go up to them and greet them, give them a proper handshake, and they’re like, “Oh, this person…” They won’t even think that we’re ex-cons – they’re like, “Oh, you were locked up? I wouldn’t have imagined that you were in the system.” It really changes their views; it re-inspires people to think, “Can we change? People help me out and connect me with other people; it’s just been an amazing experience.
But, don’t get me wrong, there are people who walk by and see us, and are like, “What the f*** is this?” We’ll stop and speak to them, but they’re like, “No, don’t touch me.” But that’s just something we’ve got to deal with. I hope that one day they see us differently.
What advice would you give to people in the high-end travel industry who want to have a positive impact on the world?
I would say, be more open – listen to people’s stories. But not only listen and be more open: also, do something about it. If you’re listening to my story or listening to other people’s stories, one thing people say is, “I feel inspired.” I’m like, “Now you’re inspired to do what? What does that ‘so inspired to do something’ look like?” Just a little bit of somebody’s time can make a huge difference; or just connecting people to the right people; or giving somebody an opportunity and believing in them can makes a world of change.
A few people in my life became my mentors – people who listened to me, who gave me that opportunity, who were inspired to do something. Those people made everything happen. So to PUREists, I would say: just be more open, you know? You’ve got a lot of employees who are going through a whole bunch of problems. What problems are they? I know there’s not a lot of time, but you could commit a little bit of time. One thing that I always say is that there’s time for everything, you know? You’ve got to make the time.
Where do you hope ConBody will be in, say, five years’ time?
I hope to create a whole movement, and a whole bunch of ConBody studios around the country. I want to employ people who were formerly incarcerated to stop them going back into the system, to really show people how this can be done. I want to partner up with hotels doing small projects and stuff like that – getting into that world is really opening up doors for us. The main thing I want to be is taking this to the next level around the world, that’s my dream.
Katie Palmer is Editorial Manager for Beyond Luxury Media Ltd.