Coss Marte was sent to prison in 2009, but that wasn’t his only problem. The 23-year-old Marte weighed over 230 pounds, and his cholesterol levels were so high that doctors said he could die in five years—long before he completed his seven-year sentence. Determined not to die in prison, he turned his nine-by-six-foot jail cell into a gym, losing 70 pounds in six months. Today, Marte shares his training techniques with over 10,000 clients: In 2013, three years after he was released from prison, he founded ConBody, a New York-based fitness company.
Marte’s entrepreneurial instincts were clear at an early age, though his business skills focused on getting people high instead of getting them fit. He grew up in drug-infested neighborhoods in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and started selling drugs at age 13. By his 19th birthday, he was running one of the city’s biggest drug-delivery services with over 20 employees. “I changed the way we sell drugs,” Marte said in a 2016 TEDx talk. “I made 10,000 business cards and gave them to every professional that I thought used drugs.”
When Marte was released from prison, he vowed he would never go back, but he found that opportunities for ex-convicts were nonexistent. Starting his own fitness company was his solution. “When I came home, I saw all these women with yoga pants and I said, ‘This is my target market.’” He started teaching classes in a park, then he rented studios, and eventually he opened a facility on the same Lower East Side corner where he once sold drugs.
Marte well remembers the obstacles he faced, and because of that, he hires recently released prisoners as trainers. In the United States, 76 percent of inmates return to prison, he says. Here’s how he’s working to change that.
Why is it important to you to hire ex-prisoners?
Primarily because I felt the pain. I felt the pain of coming out and knocking on all these doors, and having them over and over be shut on my face. That happened to me over 100 times. Every time I wanted to fill out an application, it was, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” When I started interacting with the people coming out, it was the same story. Because of their background, because of where they grew up, because of their race, they weren’t getting hired, and I was tired of it. ConBody was born out of desperation.
What do you wish people understood about the challenges facing people who leave prison?
I wish the world was more empathetic with formerly incarcerated individuals. What the media portrays is that we’re all killers, murderers, and rapists, and that’s not what we are. That’s a small part of the prison population. They have psychological issues and need help. The majority are people who have committed mistakes. We all supposedly commit mistakes, that’s how we learn. I ask this question all the time to people I speak to: “Have you ever smoked weed, have you ever gotten in a vehicle with somebody who has something in their pocket, or is drinking and driving? You could have ended up in our shoes.” I want them to be more empathetic.
What do people want most after they’re released?
We’re just human beings, and we want an opportunity to get back into society.
What makes you feel hopeful these days?
Five years ago, this topic was not in the news. I feel like a lot more people are aware of the system, and how messed up it is, and it’s opening people’s eyes. So many people have been affected that everybody has a first or second connection of somebody that’s been in the system.
What’s next for you?
We’ve recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a ConBody Virtual Gym so that anyone can log-on and workout anywhere. We’re trying to build this platform and hire more formerly incarcerated individuals, and help them adapt back into society.