How an ex-con is changing the world through fitness
From drug kingpin to fitness instructor
In a world full of obvious pairs like Lilo and Stitch, PB&J, Sundays and football and Mondays and The Bachelorette, Coss Marte has made a living off an unlikely couple — fitness and second chances.
The last thing Marte did before passing through the gates of an upstate penitentiary to serve his sentence in 2009 was hug his 18-month old son goodbye. He’d been in and out of the prison system ten times already, and by the time he'd be let out this time, his son would be in his teens.
Little did Marte know that this time in prison would lay the blueprints for the successful business he'd open in less than a decade. In 2016, the ex-con opened the doors to Conbody Fitness, a New York gym center inspired by his time in prison.
Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Marte was surrounded by violence and drugs. He started selling marijuana when he was 13-years-old, and by 19 his city-wide undercover marijuana business was raking in over two million dollars a year.
At the start of serving his 12-24 year sentence (eventually shortened to seven years), Marte was told he wouldn't live to see the outside of his cell because of his poor health. At 23 years-old, the inmate stood 5'8" tall and weighed roughly 280 pounds. So, he lost 70 pounds in about six months and helped 20 other inmates lose a combined total of 1,000 pounds.
After dropping the pounds, Marte came up with the idea to open a fitness facility for felons. “I wanted to break down the wall between professionals and stereotypes of prisoners and try to end the judgment and create a non-judgment zone,” he said.
When Marte’s sentence was over, he was ready to embark on the journey of opening his gym, but struggled with finding employment. “It was a huge problem for me going to every retail store looking for something and it was hard because nobody wanted to give me a chance or open the door for me,” Marte said.
So, he opened the door for himself, as well as for those seeking a healthy lifestyle with a criminal record who'd been rejected from a second chance of employment. Employer reluctance to hire felons has proven to be a complex situation due to negative stereotypes and adversarial sentiment towards the ability of an ex-convict. In an increasingly competitive workforce, individuals with criminal pasts face an even greater struggle for employment opportunities.
Despite these challenges, Marte caught the eye of Barbara Corcoran, an investor on Shark Tank, who put $10,000 into Marte's business. Soon enough, ConBody was ready open.
On New Year's day, Marte started 2016 with a bang and officially opened ConBody, a "prison style bootcamp." In line with his mission to give second chances to felons wanting to work, only two out of his 17 employees don't have a criminal record.
The gym is designed to resemble a prison. “I came up with the interior design myself because I had the time to think so I used that time in prison and was productive with it," Marte said.
Don’t pretend like you haven't already thought about the Insta photo opps at ConBody. The gym is decorated with fake barbed wire, cell-like doors, brick walls and a mug shot wall.
“I’m particularly proud of the mural we had done outside. It’s a ConBody mural where you can stand and take your mugshot and it’s super cool and I love it just because it states that we’re there,” Marte said. “It’s on the same block [downtown location] that I got into trouble at when I was younger so it’s really full circle for me.”
The workouts are structured classes that typically involve intensive body weights and model prison-style workouts. When he was 19-years-old, Marte enrolled himself in a military program run by ex marines to shave time off his sentence. Inspired by the daily two-hour training he did as an inmate, Marte incorporated exercises the correctional officers taught him into ConBody workouts.
The gym runs on a strict class base, seven days a week. The downtown studio has about 42 classes a week and the midtown studio has about 25 classes a week. The classes run hourly from 6:30 am to 9 pm.
ConBody is completely transparent with their customers about the staff's criminal pasts. “It’s incredible. When people come in here they really find out this person is just another human being and not going to hurt them and just wants a second chance. They become friends and you see it. I see it as an owner and as someone who is running this. I see the whole stereotype break down,” Marte said. It’s important to reassure individuals entering the workforce that people value them, he added.
Marte’s message to those looking for a second chance: “Appreciate every single moment and cherish that moment you’re given a second chance and opportunity. When you’re coming out, there’s limited resources so when you receive that open door, don’t mess it up. If you do mess up, people are human we all make mistakes, but just trust the process.”