“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
– Winston Churchill
In the pursuit of giving you everything you need to take ownership of your financial, physical and mental health, I try to interview and share the stories of a diverse mix of guests. However, I’ve never interviewed someone like who we’ve got today: Coss Marte.
When she was six months pregnant with him, Coss’ mother immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic. Settling in the Lower East Side of New York City during the 1980s, it was a brutal time, with skyrocketing crime statistics that made headlines around the world.
At 11 years old, Coss began using drugs. Just two years later, to make ends meet, he was selling crack on the streets. With a complete lack of positive role models, and an environment riddled with crime, there were few legitimate avenues available to him. Yet, despite seeing people killed and regularly witnessing extreme acts of violence, Coss survived as he inched his way up the food chain.
Eventually, at 19 years old, he was at the helm of one of the largest drug delivery services in New York City. Through a team of more than two dozen couriers, dispatchers, and street soldiers, Coss distributed vast quantities of cocaine and marijuana to all segments of society – from public housing residents to cops, judges, and doctors, but especially Wall Street executives who had the salaries to match their insatiable appetite for his product.
At its peak, the business was earning more than $5 million a year. Coss’ drug venture was so successful that he needed eight mobile phones just to store the sheer number of customer contacts.
Eventually, the law caught up with him, and 23-year-old Coss was sentenced to prison and forced to turnover all proceeds from his criminal enterprise. It was the latest and most severe of a string of arrests that had seen him incarcerated 10 times since he first began dealing drugs as a 13-year-old. Giving up the lavish lifestyle was tough but, since Coss had become a father for the first time, the feelings of abandonment from his baby son – whom he had to watch grow up from behind bars – was the worst.
While in prison, Coss was told that his cholesterol levels were off the charts and he would die if he didn’t start taking care of his health. Six months later, through a rigorous fitness regime from the confines of his cell, Coss lost 70 pounds and helped dozens of other inmates to do the same.
His physical transformation had reignited a flame of ambition, and when released he launched ConBody, a fitness program that would help get people in the best shape of their life, while offering employment for people who had just left prison so they wouldn’t have to face the constant rejection that awaited them.
Since then, through his studios and online programs, Coss has trained 50,000+ people from around the world. He’s an author, a TEDx speaker, and recently launched a crowdfund for a nonprofit that helps equip formerly incarcerated people with the skills to succeed in the digital world so they don’t need to return to a life of crime.
This is a different and more somber style of interview than I’ve done before, and while we cover many of the raw aspects of Coss’ past, none of it is used to glorify the life he used to lead. It’s a wonderful tale of redemption and shows how the right accountability and focus can brighten even the darkest situation.
Note: Prior to the interview, I asked Coss to avoid mentioning anyone or anything from his past life that could jeopardize his or his family’s safety.
Great to see you my friend. Thanks for being on Win the Day.
No, thank you so much, James, for the opportunity.
To kick things off, take us into the Lower East Side of New York City during the 1980s, and what it was like as a 13-year-old kid selling crack on the streets?
It was a crazy time. I remember seeing drug lines down the block, and I remember it was a normal thing to see. The community was part of it, and I grew up thinking it was some sort of job. People would say, “Yo, the cops are coming,” and somebody would blow a whistle down the block to warn everyone. Some people would scatter, and sometimes the cops would just turn a blind eye to what they were seeing because there was so much craziness. It was just insane.
I remember seeing buckets filled with drugs coming down from the roof, and people on the street would put their money in the bucket and it would go up and down all day to service everyone in the lines. It was just crazy.
And that was obviously a notoriously crime-ridden part of New York City that made headlines around the world. Were there areas of the city where the police just refused to go into?
You would see the police, but you would not see them doing anything. There was just so much going on that it became normalized – they would walk by prostitutes and just say hi to them, to keep it moving. I felt like they just couldn't control what was happening and they were part of the problem as well. They were doing corrupt stuff. They were taking money under the door or robbing people. I've been robbed by cops before where they take my money and just don't report it.
How did the drug game work as a street-level dealer? Did everyone have their own turf where other crews knew they weren’t supposed to be unless they were trying to take it over?
Yeah, every corner was owned by somebody. But it’s not like the movies where somebody from one corner comes to the next corner and they get shot. Although if you sold drugs on that block, you would have a problem.
I remember having a fight with the guy who sold drugs in my mom's block, and I sold drugs two blocks away. I was walking into the building and saw a common customer, so I served him. Somebody told the other guy, and we got into a fight. He pulled out a knife and started chasing me. It was just things that you would never imagine happening, but it was happening, and there were no cameras around.
Nowadays, people are worried about the cameras watching them. Back then, there were no cellphones with cameras. Everybody had a beeper, and that was it.
Much easier to get away with things before all the surveillance?
Is there an incident that stands out as particularly brutal that people who haven't lived that life might not have any idea about?
I had a friend/neighbor get shot and killed. He got shot three times in the head, and I was down the block. I was just standing on the corner, and shots rang off. It was over a girl and a cellphone. It was just crazy to see how things could escalate for something so minuscule. Thinking about it now, people would fight for someone stepping on somebody's else’s Jordans [shoes]. “You step on my Jordans, it's an automatic fight,” so it was things of that nature.
I've seen a lot of crazy stuff. There's just so many stories that I could get into, especially with me and my business partner from back in the day. I remember we went to Central Park, and there was a horse and carriage there. We were walking around with our mink coats and joking around with our pimp sticks. And we just had so much money that we were like, “Yo, let's try to bargain with one of these horse carriages and take them back to our neighborhood, so we could sell drugs right from the horse and carriage.” There was a borderline under 42nd Street where they weren’t allowed to go.
So we gave this lady $5,000 to take us to the block, and the kids in the neighborhood started feeding the horses apples and carrots, and we gave everybody money. We were literally going down 5th Avenue having crackheads meet us in a horse and carriage so we could sell them drugs.
We were literally going down 5th Avenue having crackheads meet us in a horse and carriage so we could sell them drugs.
We even took the horse and carriage through a McDonald's drive thru. It was crazy, but we got away with stuff like that.
How would people know that you were the dealer? Or did people recognize you at that point?
At that point I had a delivery service, so I was getting calls all over the city from people who wanted drugs. So while we were riding down 5th Avenue, we were like, “We're about to hit the corner of 14th and 5th. Jump on the horse and carriage, and then jump off.”
And then we were heading to Houston Street: “We're on Houston and Broadway. We're here. Meet us on this corner.” It was like something out of a movie that’s really hard to describe.
It would make for a good movie at some stage in the future! Was there no concern about any of those people wanting to buy drugs possibly being undercover cops? Or was the war on drugs, and the big clean up of the city, done later?
Yeah. Rudy Giuliani [Mayor of New York City] was a man who was against crime. I remember as a kid just being stopped by cops constantly for not doing anything. I've probably been stopped by cops on stop-and-frisk about 200 times just because they knew I was up to no good, but sometimes I was just going to the store or going down the block or just minding my own business.
They stopped me because they said, “You fit the description” or “Somebody said you had a gun on you.” But I never really carried guns at that time. It was crazy.
Eventually you make it from street dealer to head of a crew making more than $5 million dollars a year. How did that transition happen?
We basically changed the way we sold drugs. I remember make little pieces of paper, and writing my number on it, and giving that out to people. In the early 2000s, the neighborhood started getting gentrified, after 9/11.
Nobody wanted to live in the Lower East Side, and I remember landowners offering people like $20,000 just to move out. Then they would fix up the apartments, and rent them out for $3,000 a month, which is crazy. And that’s still happening today.
So gentrification happened quickly. People, mainly white hipsters, started moving in, and they had a lot of money. I remember increasing my price from selling $20 bags to $50 bags, and then $100 per gram, and they just kept escalating like that.
I would buy a kilo for about $20,000 and make $100,000 off of it. And we'd move a kilo in a week.
I did what I could to make sure the person was not a cop. I would hang out with them – meet them in a bar, smoke a blunt with them, and give them my card with a coke sample on it. We would exchange numbers, and that's how it expanded.
But I did get caught through phones, but that's a longer story.
So, at that point, you had this whole business. You got dozens of people on your payroll. You've got drivers, couriers, people working all the different phones as dispatchers. What about the product side – where did that come from, what could you sell it for, and who were you selling it to?
I'm not going to say where the product came from specifically, but everything is derived from South America. It was being delivered directly through mail, people on planes, and that’s how things operated. I would buy a kilo for about $20,000 and make $100,000 off of it. And we'd move a kilo in a week.
You were also dealing to Wall Street executives and other corporate clients. Were they asking for certain drugs that you weren’t currently selling, which you then added to your portfolio?
The only thing that we added to our portfolio was weed. We didn't really have that many categories. When I was younger, I had messed around with hashish, heroin, e-pills, and acid, and all that stuff. But once we started the delivery service, we just straight focused on coke and weed.
Who were the best customers to have?
Those Wall Street people. They had a lot of money. They would move into the city and pay $3,000 a month for a 200 square foot studio apartment. It was crazy to see that. I've never seen people spend money so frivolously.
And there were actually a lot of Australians moving in. I remember them saying back home they paid like $150 a gram for coke. When they came to the city and we told them $100 a gram, they were like, “Wow, can I get 20?”
And it was just like, “Oh shit. This person going all out.”
So you had these people who were moving into New York City, and they were our best customers. They had professional jobs, but they all partied. And then the word got out. Even doctors. I've sold to lawyers, judges, cops. You name it.
At its peak, you were bringing in $5 million a year with more than $2 million in profit. What was your life like at that point – were you happy or were you wanting more?
I was always wanting more, and I was pretty greedy. I had a cold heart. I didn't even care who was hurt by my drugs – I just wanted the money, and I wanted to keep growing. It was crazy. I spent money frivolously and didn't really care what was going on.
I knew the money would keep going and coming, and it was fun. I was not sad at those times! It was a lot of crazy partying and messing around in the streets, and that was just the mentality that I had. I didn't care who I had to step over or hurt to get that money.
That notion of living for the present, rather than trying to set yourself up for the future. Is that why the idea of quitting while you were ahead never entered your mind? Or maybe it did enter your mind?
It did. I definitely wanted to get into some type of real estate. I tried to get my real estate broker license when I was younger, but I had a [criminal] record so that prevented me from entering that business. I was looking into buying foreclosed houses, and buying stuff, and I got caught up with my friend. We spent a lot of money.
When did you realize the whole operation had come undone or was about to become undone, and you were facing some very serious consequences?
It was the day I got caught – it was a total surprise.
We had all our dispatchers setup in condos, with cars and a salary. All they had to do was answer the phone and just tell the people where to go. They had the packages that they handed over to the deliverers. One dispatcher went behind our back, took our business card, and made a new phone number on the card. He then gave those cards away to try and steal our customers. One card ended up with one of my clients who had my personal number.
So this client of mine hits me up, and I used to hang out with this guy. He's like, “Yo, this guy gave me a card. It's a new number now and the product is not the same.” And I'm like, “What are you talking about?” because our product was always grade A. We didn't cut anything. It was straight from the ship to your nose, and that's how we delivered it.
Our product was always grade A. We didn't cut anything. It was straight from the ship to your nose, and that's how we delivered it.
He was like, “Yeah. They're serving green bags.” And I'm like, “That's not my bags. My bags are clear.”
I asked him for the phone number on the card he was given. I called the number and heard a dispatcher that I employed answer that phone, and I was like, “Yo, what the fuck are you doing?” and he quickly hung up. That dispatcher had all the phones in his possession at the time.
I had a connection with T-Mobile, and we only used prepaid phones, so I went and turned off all the phones and started again with new cell phones. But the phone number he had started was being tapped by federal agents. I had taken that phone number and started operating with it because I thought it was all the customers he stole from me.
So that's where the investigation started. They had a year-long investigation on me. They had a bunch of cell phones from all my drivers, but didn't even know that there were six other phones that we were operating with. The reason we had so many phones was because each one only held 1,500 to 2,500 contact numbers. Back then, you couldn't hold tens of thousands of contacts in a phone.
And we just kept pushing it. I remember not trusting anymore dispatchers. I started doing a lot more myself, and that's how we got caught.
I remember going to the stash house to drop off some weed. As I walked upstairs, I was getting a whole bunch of calls from clients. So, I was sending all my drivers out, and one at a time they were getting picked up. I don't know if you remember the Nextel phones with the walkie talkie, but when it didn’t go through it used to go “beep, beep” when they were busy, like someone was on the phone. And it kept doing that, so I kept sending other drivers to different places because we had a list of 50 people waiting for us, but it kept happening.
That night, after my ninth driver was unresponsive, I said, “Fuck that. I don’t know what these guys are doing. I can’t wait, so I'm going to go make these deliveries myself.”
So, I grabbed a whole bunch of packages, but as soon as I got downstairs, I saw this white… I'm in the middle of the Bronx, like a straight black and Hispanic neighborhood. You don't see white people there, but I saw this big white guy, and he was standing outside the house. He pulled out his badge and said, “This is Federal Agent Joseph King. Your whole operation is over.”
And I'm like, “What the fuck?”
He said, “You’re Coss Marte, right?”
And I said, “I don't know what you're talking about.”
I turned to run, but they quickly tackled me. They pulled out their warrant, went upstairs, and knew exactly where everything was stored. One of the drivers had told them where everything was stashed. I just knew that somebody had told because, when they brought me upstairs, they were like, “Don't worry, we know everything.”
They knew exactly.
I had about 500 pairs of Jordans, which I sold to start Conbody. The cops went exactly to the pair of sneakers where all the drugs were at in that box, and they opened it up. Game over.
Wow. So you were arrested and initially faced a life sentence because of the three-strikes-law that imposed a mandatory life sentence if you had two prior convictions. Due to equal parts luck and some changes in government, you ended up with a seven-year sentence with a non-parole period of five years. What was it like in court, just sitting there waiting to see how much of your life was going to be taken from you?
It was nerve-wracking. It was definitely one of the most nerve-wracking situations that I’ve ever faced. I've been in shootouts, I've seen people pass away in front of me, but to be in cuffs and see a judge who decides the future of your life… it’s like they can kill you right there. And once you're away, you're not alive, and that's how I felt.
You're off to prison at that point. It wasn't the first time you'd been to prison, but it was the largest sentence. How was your first night on the inside, knowing that it was going to be a long time before you'd be able to see your son again?
It was sad and it’s what hurt me the most. I remember that day I got arrested, I spent pretty much the whole day with him and my wife ... Well, she was my fiancée at the time, and we got married when I was inside prison, but divorced when we got out. But yeah, it was hard. If anybody has kids, you feel it in your heart.
And then also speaking to him over the phone was tough. I taught him his ABCs over the prison phone. And he would also come to visit me and say, "When are you coming home?" And that broke my heart, to hear him cry and have to tell him, "I can't go home."
What's an average day like in prison?
You try to forget about the real world. You're living in a different planet in there – it’s just a different set of rules. There's a lot of racism going on in US prisons. There's black gangs, Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, and all types of gangs running stuff. Sometimes you end up in a housing unit that's full of mostly Bloods, sometimes you're in a Crip house, sometimes you're in a Latin King house. You just have to be ready to adapt.
I knew how to adapt because I was a kid when I first went to prison. I remember when I was a kid, I had a fight every single day because I was not part of a gang. The adults are a bit more lenient in terms of you not being in a gang, but that meant you still couldn't do things like use certain phones.
In prison, there were three pay phones: a neutral phone, a Spanish phone, and a black gang phone. I was not in a gang, but I was always hanging out with the Spanish gangs, so I was okay to use the Spanish phone. Sometimes other gang members would take away that neutral phone, so if you're not part of that unit, you couldn't make a phone call.
I've seen people extorted for food, have fights over TV. Actually, a lot of fights over the TV – someone might be watching the Spanish channel, whereas someone else might want to watch regular news, so they just go up to the TV and change it. You just have to be ready to fight. It's crazy.
They say, “Pull out your gun.” You don’t have a gun, but it’s what they call knives. Your knife is your gun, and that's what they’d say.
Was it more violent inside or on the streets?
It was definitely more violent inside prison. In the streets, you could be incognito, especially after things changed with cell phones and delivery services. It was not that corner-to-corner type of issue from back in the day.
Were you able to work and earn wages inside prison?
Yes, I was working as a customer service agent for the Department of Motor Vehicles, earning seven cents an hour.
Seven cents an hour?
Yes, that’s an hour. My monthly wage was $40.
That's crazy. How do they justify seven cents an hour?
I have no idea. It's all a robbery. It's a money-making business. The department pays the inmates a certain amount, and the prison take a cut. So they could say like, “Hey, we'll deliver all the customer agents for you for $10 an hour rather than $20 an hour.” And then you get paid whatever they tell you you're going to get paid.
I was working as a customer service agent for the Department of Motor Vehicles, earning seven cents an hour.
You’re stuck because you want to do something while you're inside. You have to do something, just to keep occupied. And if you don't work, you get in trouble too.
There are so many ways you cease being human when you enter the prison system.
Yeah. It's part of the law. Basically, to be incarcerated, you’re subject to being enslaved.
Well, five years in, you're only a couple of months away from being released, but an unwarranted assault from a guard lands you in solitary and stacks more time on your sentence. How that did happen, and how did you keep the faith?
I was devastated when I ended up in solitary confinement. I had two months left before my release, and I remember one of the officers beat me up and threw me in solitary confinement with 24-hour lockdown. I was devastated. I felt hopeless. I thought I couldn't get out of the situation, but then an officer came to my door, opened up the food slot, and passed me a pen, paper, and an envelope. I quickly grabbed them so I could communicate with my family.
So, I wrote a letter to let my family know about the whole situation, and how this officer set me up and beat me up. As I sealed the letter, I realized I had no stamp to send it out and I became even more restless.
I sat on my bed and started banging my head on the wall, just frustrated. Hopeless. It was not until three or four days later when my sister found out I was in solitary. She wrote me a letter and said, “We found out you're in solitary. Everything is going to be all right. All I want you to do is pray.” My sister is super religious, and she told me to pray to Psalm 91.
But I was like, "Fuck that. I don't need god and I don't need religion. I need a lawyer. I need to fight this case. This guy is trying to set me up."
It was not until a couple of days later where I decided to pick up the bible, which was the only thing in the cell. The bible is the only thing that follows you around through your whole prison sentence, and it was this bible that she gave me early in my incarceration in Rikers Island.
To be incarcerated, you’re subject to being enslaved.
And I turned to Psalm 91, which states, “He who dwells in the shelter of the most high will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord. He is my shelter and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” And as soon as I read those words, a stamp fell out of the Psalm pages, and that gave me chills.
I don't know. I was struck by awe, and I kept reading, and something weird happened to me. I was in 100+ degree weather, a super-hot cell, frustrated, but every time I read the bible I felt like I was in cool 70 degree weather, and sitting in the Caribbean. Every time I began reading, I escaped that cell. I got lost in the words, and I read the bible from front to back. I'm not a super religious person, and I'm not trying to convert anyone, but that is what happened to me.
Through reading the bible, I started realizing that what I had been doing was wrong. I felt like drugs were okay to sell. Previously, I had felt like I was not doing anything wrong – that it was the system that was wrong. I thought I was the victim in every situation.
And then I started realizing that I was affecting not only the thousands of people that I sell drugs to, but I started thinking about their families. I started thinking about my family. I started thinking about this web of destruction that I'd created, and I felt so much regret. I said, “I want to get back in some sort of way.”
I came up with the idea of ConBody in that cell. Then, I lost 70 pounds in six months, while helping 20 other inmates lose more than 1,000 pounds combined.
So, I started this whole workout program in the prison yard. I knew then that it’s what I wanted to do when I came home: a prison-style bootcamp. In my cell, I wrote a mini-business plan and a 90-day workout plan. I said to myself that I would do what I wrote, and I did.
About a year later, I came home and put it into action. I started training classes in the park, then rented out studios, then eventually opened up my own studio. It escalated to building an online workout platform where I now train thousands of people all over the world. Today, we've trained more than 50,000 people. But the most beautiful thing is that we've hired over 40 people coming out of the prison system, and none of them have come back into the system.
That's incredible. In New York, aren’t 53% of released prisoners likely to be back inside prison within three years?
Yes, and that's just three years. Within five years, it's 76%. Within eight years, 82% of the people will go back into the system. So more than three out of four people will go back, and I'm a proven statistic. I recidivated, and it a lot has to do with the lack of opportunities that you receive when you get out of the system and come home.
So you were inside and came up with what you thought was a solid business idea, but it was only when you got started that you realized just how good it was. How were you able to spread the word about ConBody? And were there any principles or lessons you had from your former life that were able to help you build it?
Yeah. I remember when I got out of solitary confinement, I had to do this group class for a couple of months called ASAT – the alcohol, substance abuse treatment program. In the middle of the class, full of inmates, they ask us what our plan is when we come home. I remember getting up in front of the class and telling everyone, “Look, I'm going to start a prison-style bootcamp. I'm going to hire people coming out of the system.” And I told them the whole idea of ConBody.
They all laughed and thought I was crazy, but that got me mad. I said, “This shit is going to fucking pop off! I know how to build the business from the ground up.” And that was just my mentality: that nothing was going to stop me. I was determined to make this thing happen.
My mentality was nothing is going to stop me.
Then I came home and used the same marketing and hustling skills that I used when I was selling drugs. I was going up to random people and giving them my business card. Any females wearing yoga pants who were jogging down the block, I would chase after them and pitch them left and right! I just kept doing it, and from there it started escalating.
Did you find people who were currently incarcerated and go into the prisons to train them as personal trainers? Or was it once they were released, you were able to train them as personal trainers and bring them into Conbody?
Yeah, once they were released. At the start, I was doing everything myself – teaching all the classes and running the whole business. I couldn't afford to pay anyone in the beginning stages. It took me a little over a year and a half before I hired my first guy. Then, one of the guys who I was locked up with that saw me lose a lot of weight, he contacted me immediately when he came home because he’d read about me in an article and became my Facebook friend. He hit me up and said, “Hey, yo. Can I be a trainer there?” So I brought him on board, and it kept spreading like that.
I love it. And this year, you started a crowdfunding campaign for Second Chance Studios, which has raised more than $60,000. What's your aim with Second Chance Studios, and why is it such an important project for you?
One of the biggest issues when people are coming out of the prison system is that we have a lot of manual labor jobs, and that's pretty much the only job you can get when you come out. One out of five people unemployed in America are formerly incarcerated people, which is crazy. That's millions and millions of people with criminal histories, and that correlates to people going back. Especially during COVID time, anybody who had a manual labor job pretty much lost their job. So now with the technical skill side of it, we want to launch Second Chance Studios so we can hire and train people to do podcasting work, video production, and audio engineering.
We want to have corporations hire these individuals once they’ve gone through our program and solidified their training. That would also be helpful for me because I want to hire people with those skills for the ConBody side, too.
It's perfect timing with the pandemic and the push to remote work, where people can offer their expertise from the comfort of their own home.
You've been a TEDx speaker, an author, and done all these amazing things. How long ago was it since you were released and able to start doing all these awesome ventures?
It's been a while. March 2013.
I have the utmost respect for the journey that you have been on. It was obviously a very difficult upbringing, but the bigger the setback, the bigger the comeback.
There seems to be a resistance to helping formerly incarcerated individuals develop skills and earn money. It’s like people would rather be afraid of them from a distance, and it remains a taboo subject. Yet, we need that change to happen if we’re to have a meaningful society. If you had one change to make to the prison system, what would it be?
I think we need to believe in redemption. Everyone in this planet has committed some type of mistake, something immoral or something bad. Not everyone's perfect, and we need to realize that we all commit mistakes. If we didn't commit mistakes, we wouldn't learn from our mistakes. But our system in the US is all about punishment. It’s a correction facility, and we need to correct the problem.
To do that, we need to recruit people who care. Instead of bringing in correctional officers who just want to beat you up with batons and turn you more into a criminal, why not have trained correctional officers and staff members who really care? People who want to correct the problem, to train and reform individuals, and who believe in second chances.
Hopefully sharing your story on platforms like this can help initiate that change.
Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Coss does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give her 18-year-old self, his favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀
Final question. What's one thing you do to Win the Day?
Working out is the biggest thing for me. I feel so accomplished when I wake up in the morning and go for a run or workout.
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