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Bridging Gaps in Between Burpees

When Coss Marte entered prison, doctors warned that with his former lifestyle and current high cholesterol he could be dead within five years. Determined to transform his health and life while serving a seven-year sentence, he started working out. After losing 70 pounds in six months with nothing but the walls and floor of his 9-by-6 prison cell, Coss’ business idea was born.

Today, he’s the Founder & CEO of CONBODY, a studio in New York City that teaches fitness bootcamps using the bodyweight training techniques Coss learned while incarcerated. CONBODY’s dedicated trainers are themselves formerly incarcerated individuals. Young professionals flock to the Lower East Side studio, where in between push-ups, planks, and burpees, stereotypes are challenged, bridges are built, and a vibrant, no-judgment community is created. 

As a recipient of a REDF Impact Investing Fund (RIIF) loan, Coss recently sat down with Emilie Linick, Director of Impact Lending, to talk about CONBODY, second chances, and future plans.

On your website you say your message is about prison reform and that your mission is to bridge a gap between young professionals and formerly incarcerated. Tell me about how that bridging unfolds. 

We put facts on our wall about incarceration and we’ve had influential people speak, like Mike Pompeo’s son, Nick Pompeo, and Adam Foss, former Boston Assistant District Attorney, who spoke about how we should re-construct the criminal justice system. But it’s really about the day-to-day interactions that happen between trainers and customers and the conversations that happen in the waiting area. Those conversations, those interactions, bring humanity out on both sides. Before they workout with us, they might have these misperceptions of us as former criminals. After, they realize we’re actual human beings that committed a big mistake, and we’ve paid for it.

After being released from prison, you say in your video that it was hard to get a job. Eventually you got an internship at another social enterprise, Goodwill. How important was that second chance for you?

A second chance was critical. While in that internship, a spot opened for a data entry position, and I applied. It was a good steppingstone. I needed money while I was starting CONBODY. I channeled the business tactics and work ethic I had before entering prison and transferred it to creating CONBODY. I’d train people four times a day before and after work. That kept me going and kept me structured. It also allowed me to give money to my family.

What do you wish people knew about your employees?

The employees that we’ve hired are more loyal than people without a criminal history. There’s a bond because we’ve been “x-ed out” and we empathize with each other. For us, it’s not just a 9-to-5 job that we punch in and out of. We’re a family. We have a culture where people want to hang out, and when that happens, we see each other’s humanity.

When thinking about CONBODY’s future, what are you most excited about? 
I’m really excited about the fact that we’re hiring more instructors who’ve left the prison system, and we’re focused on getting that process right. I’m also excited about demonstrating that someone with my background can really strive and make a huge impact in the fitness business and criminal justice space. Our dream is to open multiple spaces and franchise CONBODY around the country.

How will your loan from REDF Impact Investing Fund help CONBODY’s future?

The loan from RIIF is extremely helpful to our business growth. It gives us a longer runway and more room on the backend to put processes in place, test apparel, create workout videos, and become a more profitable company.

What made partnering with REDF attractive? Had you applied to loans with other funders prior?

RIIF has the specific focus of lending to businesses like CONBODY and they don’t discriminate. I knocked on so many doors and gave so many pitches, but many funders still felt like it was a liability to hire people coming out of prison. Even though we were able to show our outcomes, we would be denied a credit line, or it’d be offered with a 25% interest rate.

How did you stay focused on the end goal?  

My sights were set when I came home. I was determined not to go back to the streets. I had been in and out of jail nine times. I thought about my son. I was living on my mom’s couch for a year when I first got home. I would say the serenity prayer reminding myself that if I couldn’t control something, to let it go, and if I could, I would push forward and change it. I had to understand what my limits were to get through the hard times.



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