An Extraordinary Changemaker

Coss Marte — founder of ConBody

Coss Marte is the founder of ConBody, a gym headquartered in NYC.

ConBody is located on the same New York street corner — where Coss once ran a drug business.

How did Coss go from dealing on the Lower East Side, getting caught, and serving six years in prison, to launching a super successful fitness company?

He’s a changemaker.

Based upon David Brooks’ assertion, Coss is the ultimate changemaker. From illegal entrepreneurship to not only legal entrepreneurship, but successfully growing a company, and hiring and training many capable, talented ex cons, Coss transversed the gulf between his former life to become a healthy, successful entrepreneur.

Coss exhibited the characteristics and thought patterns that Brooks identifies as key to true “changemakers”:

Changemakers are people who can see the patterns around them, identify the problems in any situation, figure out ways to solve the problem, organize fluid teams, lead collective action and then continually adapt as situations change.

Coss faced significant personal, cultural, financial, and geographical odds to ultimately become what he is today, and strives to be every day: a person who disrupts himself daily.

Not only is Coss a changemaker, he’s a stellar example of a “disruptor”, or someone who succeeds in extraordinary ways. Coss was a disruptor, however illegal. Doing, dealing, and delivering drugs from the age of 11, he built a drug business that made him $2,000,000 by the time he was 19. An innovative recruiter, Coss printed 10,000 business cards and built a complex network of dispatchers across the tri-state area — something no one had done before.

How can we be a changemaker like Coss?

How can we disrupt ourselves?

IDENTIFY PATTERNS AROUND THEM

According to Brooks, changemakers are observers. They’re good listeners and watchers. Coss had already shown an aptitude for business organization and leadership, however illegal, when he was caught. But it was his own self-discovery and social aptitude that took his small idea of becoming a fitness trainer after getting out of jail, into a full-fledged business idea.

He took what he knew, saw what needed to change, and applied it. What he didn’t know, he taught himself, or found mentors and programs to teach and support him. Coss’s mother always said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t eat” and Coss embodied that drive.

IDENTIFY THE PROBLEMS IN ANY SITUATION

At one point in prison, Coss was placed in solitary confinement for several days. Held naked in a 105 degree cell, he was given only four things: an envelope, a pen, paper, and a bible. He wrote a ten page letter to his family explaining to them how frustrated he was and that this punishment would mean that he would not be getting out in a few weeks. (It ultimately led him to another year in prison.) After expending all his energy getting his thoughts down on paper, he realized he didn’t have the one thing he needed to actually get the letter to his family — a stamp.

A stamp and a bible

Discouraged, he read a letter from his sister where she shared a favorite scripture in Psalms. He opened his own Bible to the verse and upon reading, felt more peace than he ever had. Based upon this experience, he read the whole book. In addition, Coss confided during our podcast interview that the book felt so powerful, when he was reading it, the cell no longer felt 105 degrees but like a 75 degree tropical paradise. He knew he could handle solitary confinement, and the world outside, with the help of a higher power.

FIGURE OUT WAYS TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM

After leaving jail and entering prison, doctors found Coss had life threatening cholesterol in prison. So he did what most people would do. But in prison. And with the dedication of someone with everything on the line. The motivation?

To get out of prison alive because he wanted to see his son.

Coss would lift weights and run the yard for up to two hours straight a day. Other inmates saw him working out and asked him to help them train. One by one, men joined until Coss had created a small community of trainees. Coss lost 70 pounds himself, and helped 20 other inmates lose over 1000 pounds. He knew this was something he was passionate about.

Coss lost 70 pounds himself, and helped 20 other inmates lose over 1000 pounds.

Brooks says, “Millions of people don’t feel that they can take control of their own lives. If we could give everyone the chance to experience an agency moment, to express love and respect in action, the ramifications really would change the world.” Coss shared his solution with other inmates and supported them as they worked towards their health goals. That informal “training” group planted the seed for his future business, ConBody.

ORGANIZE FLUID TEAMS

Once completing his sentence, Coss wanted to help other willing men finishing theirs. He volunteered and reached out with the help of non-profits to find men like him who were interested in physical fitness, personal growth, and hard work. He needed men, like him, who had been through difficult circumstances and felt the fire of wanting something more.

LEAD COLLECTIVE ACTION

Two years into leading ConBody, Coss has hired 14 employees. One of my favorite moments during our podcast interview was when prompted what his proudest moment has been as a “developer of talent”, without skipping a beat, he mentions Sultan Malik. Sultan is a Senior Trainer at ConBody that started working with Coss only three months out of prison. Coss says Sultan credits him with his growth, but says Sultan “was really hungry and really appreciative that he had an opportunity.”

“He was really hungry and really appreciative that he had an opportunity.”

Coss hires ex cons like himself — people looking for a second chance.

Building an A team is one of the most challenging, and fulfilling, aspects of our jobs. I could tell from the emotion in Coss’s voice that he was invested in the growth and progression of Sultan. Together they were growing ConBody into something bigger and more successful than they’d ever imagined.

Illegal entrepreneurs can become legal entrepreneurs

ADAPT, THEN ADAPT AGAIN

Coming out of six years of prison, Coss was unfamiliar with social media and didn’t know how to use Instagram or Facebook. But with the help of Youtube, he learned how to start an account and launch ConBody. He also participated in Five Interests, in incubator taught by Harvard and Stanford professors exclusively for formerly incarcerated people. The belief behind the short MBA-like program is that illegal entrepreneurs can become legal entrepreneurs.

And Coss, filled with newfound business skills with valuable mentors at his side, was well on his way to building a healthy company.

HE BOUGHT A SCHOOL BUS AND NAMED IT PRISON BUS

Coss sees ConBody as disrupting the fitness world and solving prison reform issues. Recently, he bought a school bus, named it Prison Bus, and is planning a cross country tour through major cities of high rates of incarceration.

Sometimes it can feel like there’s a unconquerable canyon between a changemaker’s world and yours. But what can we take away from Coss’s incredible story?

Look for the patterns around you, what’s working and not working. Figure out ways to solve the problem and organize people to help solve that problem. Rally people together for a joint purpose in a common goal.

And maybe most importantly, especially in 2018, to be a true disruptor and changemaker, be willing to adapt — and adapt again.


Want to harness the disruptive power of change for yourself or your team?

You want to be a great boss and create a place where people want to work. You also have tight deadlines and budgets to meet. The two often seem at odds. But they don’t have to be.

When you let your people learn, leap and repeat, you will not only meet your performance goals, because people are happy and all-in, you will become a talent magnet — a boss people love.

Learn more in my upcoming book Build an A Team with Harvard Business Press. Download the first chapter for free at — https://whitneyjohnson.com/ateam