October 29, the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. The crowd erupts into applause as American entrepreneur Coss Marte takes the stage at the TedxWanChai event.
Getting here has not been an easy journey. From growing up in the slums of New York’s Lower East Side to being sent to prison for dealing drugs to setting up his own fitness company, Marte’s life is a true rags to riches story.
Born to working class immigrants, Marte spent his childhood yearning to break the poverty cycle. When he was 13, he fell into the shadowy world of drug dealing, first by selling marijuana and then eventually progressing to more dangerous drugs such as cocaine.
“I thought about going to college and becoming successful that way,” he said. “But I saw the drug dealing way as faster and more tangible. I couldn’t see the other stuff.”
By the time he was 20, Marte was making more than HK$20 million a year by running one of New York’s largest drug cartels. Eventually, the law caught up with Marte and he was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Looking back, he says he has no regrets. “Everything happened for a reason. If I had not been down that path, I would not be doing what I’m doing today.”
But at the time, prison was tough. He got in a fight with a guard, and faced having three more years added to his sentence. Then, a doctor told him that his unhealthy lifestyle might kill him before he was free again. In response, Marte created a tough workout routine in his 54 sq ft cell, and managed to lose 30kg in six months. This, along with a turn to religion, made Marte change his ways for good.
Like every ex-convict, Marte found integrating back into society hard after being released. With hardly anyone willing to hire him, Marte turned to his initial salvation: fitness. He soon started to train other people using the same routine he developed in prison, leading workout groups at a local park.
Ironically, it was at this point in life when Marte’s drug dealing past helped him.
Marte built up ConBody: a bootcamp-style fitness gym which hires ex-convicts as instructors, using the marketing techniques he learned on the street. As a drug dealer, “I used to print 10,000 business cards and give them to people who I thought were using drugs. Now, I print business cards and give them to people who look like they’re going to work out,” he explained. Little by little, ConBody developed into a fitness centre celebrated for its unique teaching style.
Marte, 30, says his business works because he always considers his initial motives as he plans his next step. “Set yourself some goals and keep a business plan,” he advised aspiring entrepreneurs. “Whenever you update, look back at your business plan and remind yourself what the mission is.”
Today, ConBody is an expanding business. Its workout streaming service, ConBody Live, started several weeks ago after the physical gym couldn’t keep up with the increasing number of participants. Eventually, Marte plans to use the profits to open more studios, possibly even in Hong Kong.
And for students in this city, Marte argues that our heavy workload is no excuse for not being strong in healthy, as you have to find time to keep yourself fit. “I believe that there is time for everything” he said. “If you have time to check your Instagram or get on your Facebook page, subtract some of that time and devote it to yourself. Even 20 minutes of exercise a day is enough.”
The entrepreneur also believes that life isn’t just about academics, contrary to what a lot of people in Hong Kong think. When told about the increasing pressure and expectations on students, he said: “It’s about finding whatever you’re good at, and exploring it. I believe in living a happy life.”
Marte’s own troubled past and experiences taught him that although life can be tough, we should stay hopeful. As he reminds us: “Dreaming big isn’t a problem – in fact everyone should do so. If you can believe it, you can achieve it.”