Coss Marte went from running a multi-million dollar drug operation to sitting in solitary confinement. And it’s here, alone in his cell, where he gets the idea for his next business: a fitness company inspired by his time behind bars. But Coss quickly learns that building a legal business comes with its own set of challenges—one being that pitching your company on stage to a bunch of investors requires a slightly different approach to selling an eight-ball outside a busy New York club.
Building a startup is a tough and uncertain endeavor for any founder. But for one with a criminal history, the journey can be far more complicated.
This is the second part of a two-part story. To hear about Coss’ first business and how he wound up in prison, listen to part 1 here.
David Herman mixed the episode, with help from Molly Messick and Matthew Boll.
Our theme song was written and performed by Mark Phillips.
The special ad music, Microliters, was written and performed by Build Buildings.
Additional music from Golden Gram and the band Hot Moms Got Gov .
Our logo was designed by Elias Stein.
LISA: From Gimlet, this is StartUp. I’m Lisa Chow.
Today, we’re continuing a story that we started last week. So, if you didn’t hear last week’s episode, go back and listen. And like last week, there is some swearing in this episode.
When we left off, Coss Marte was in solitary confinement. He’d been in prison for three years at that point, after catching his third felony for dealing drugs. He’d been sent to the box for thirty days because of an altercation with an officer.
It was hot in his cell. There were bugs crawling over Coss’s bed. He had been on track to get out of prison early, in just two months, to rejoin his family and his young son. But because of the incident that sent him to solitary, Coss could be in prison for another three years.
Coss’s family is Catholic, and his sister had given him a Bible and told him to read it in prison. He refused for a long time, but, being as depressed as he was in solitary, he did start to read it. And he told me he had a spiritual experience. Not a lot of us have been alone in a room for thirty days. And it can lead to places you’d never expect.
COSS: When I had that experience in solitary confinement I just… that really, like, made me realize that what I was doing was really wrong. It felt so much regret. You know? And then I just thought that, you know, what do I really need? I just basically need to keep living, eating and provide, you know, which doesn’t need to come with, like, the glamorous cars and houses and, I mean, I love those things and I want them again, but I don’t need ’em, you know?
LISA: Sitting in that cell, Coss thought about what he did have. For one, he had his body. He’d actually gone through a pretty big physical transformation, after a doctor told him he could die of a heart attack in prison because of dangerously high cholesterol levels. He’d started running laps in the yard, doing pull-ups. The prison had also put him on a special diet, and he’d shed seventy pounds from his five-foot-eight frame. He’d also helped other inmates lose weight. And it was in solitary, where he first thought of what his next business could be.
COSS: I pictured myself out in the park where my mom lives, training tons of people, like, you know, hundreds of people. It felt like a dream. And then I was like, this is what I want to do when I come home. So, I began like writing, you know, my workouts and routines using this, like, long piece of paper. And every day of the week I put, like, sections off. I made this whole spreadsheet and how long it’s gonna take me to, like, do a hundred jumping jacks, you know. And when I came out of that box, I presented the idea to a group of inmates and I told ‘em, “I want to start this, like, fitness company where it’s gonna be like a prison style, you know, workouts, just like we do it.” And some guys were, like, laughing and another guy raised his hand and he was, like, you know, “That’s not gonna work.” Then I just started like being defensive, and I was like, “Well, you don’t know I’m going to make this happen. Watch me.”
LISA: Coss was in prison for another ten months, after his time in solitary. In total he served four years and was released on March 21, 2013. When he first got out, he scrubbed toilets at a hotel for six months, then through a re-entry program, Coss got a paid internship at Goodwill Industries, the nonprofit organization. That internship turned into a full-time job doing clerical work, where he got paid twelve dollars an hour.
When Coss was running a multi-million dollar drug business, at twenty three years old, he’d walk into a Louis Vuitton store and drop five grand on a suit without even thinking about it. Now, he was twenty seven, and he’d have to save up two and a half months of his pay to buy that same suit.
LISA: What did it feel like going from, you know, like, the life that you had before, making as much as… what you were making, to twelve dollars an hour?
COSS: It sucked. It sucked, but it was… I was so grateful. I was so grateful. It sucked because I didn’t have enough money at the end of the day, like… I couldn’t save money, it was just going out, you know. It was coming in, it was going out. I was sleeping on my mom’s couch.
LISA: Did, um… were you ever tempted?
COSS: To go back when I came out this time? No.
COSS: I mean, I was tempted. I was asked many times. But, I was determined that I was not going back. And I just knew. I just knew. Joey was locked up at that time, so it was, like, less temptation, too.
LISA: Joey was Coss’s partner in the drug business. They’d worked together for four years building their clientele, and their marijuana and cocaine delivery services, which they’d started in the Lower East Side of Manhattan but had grown to cover the tri-state area. In the past, when Coss would get arrested, he’d do his time. Then on his release day, Joey would often be waiting for him. Everything would be set up so perfectly, for Coss to jump right back in. And so, he always did. This time Joey was locked up. Joey still has two more years in prison.
Coss started building the business he first pictured in solitary, while he was working at Goodwill. He’d gather up his mom and her friends and train them in the park, with the hope that he’d give others the illusion that these women were all paying him. And in fact, this is how he got his first customer.
COSS: My belief is, like, if you act as if, you’ll become as if, and just keep making it happen and it will pop off.
LISA: Fake it till you make it.
COSS: Yeah, fake it till you make it. So, I was definitely faking it out there.
LISA: You were really faking it!
COSS: Yeah, so I took a piece of pipe and stuck in between the fences and we started doing pull-up bar training. And then, um, one morning, this random guy comes to the fence and like jumps on a pipe and I—well, I stopped him, I was like, “Yo, you gotta pay me for that,” and he was like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” He was like, “How much do you charge?” And I told him, you know, I didn’t even know what the hell I was charging, so I told him like, “Two hundred.” And he was like, “Two hundred dollars a month? For like semi-private, private sessions?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And I was like, “If you want to sign up, let’s make this happen.” So I like, walked him over to a ATM and got his money.
LISA: That was the fall of 2013. Coss slowly grew his customer base, continuing to train people in the park. When winter came and it was too cold outside, he started renting hourly studio space. By the spring, he was teaching two classes. Then, in June of 2014, Coss met the person who’d become the co-founder of his new business. They met, of all places, Tinder.
LISA: So which came first? Were you and Coss dating first? Or were you and Coss co-founders first? Can I ask?
JENN: Yeah, we swiped right first.
LISA: As partners go, romantic or business, Jenn Shaw and Coss Marte are pretty different. Jenn is chatty. You ask her a question and she can fill twenty minutes without interruption. Coss says what he thinks and then he’s done. Jenn is a redhead from Nebraska. Coss is Dominican-American and grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Jenn is from a family that’s got law enforcement all over it—her mom was a dispatcher and her stepdad, chief of police. Jenn herself considered entering the police academy. Coss, well, you know his story.
But when Jenn and Coss met, they hit it off immediately. In fact, he told her about his past that first evening, something he hadn’t done with other women. And the relationship got serious pretty quickly. Jenn had been planning to move back to the Midwest, to be closer to her mom— she’d already lined up housing in Kansas City—but after meeting Coss, she changed her mind.
JENN: That call was fun. “So, mom, I met someone…”
LISA: Jenn had a couple of pieces of news, to break to her mom in this call.
JENN: I was breaking up with the guy that, like, I’d been with several years, she loved. He worked for the law enforcement himself, like, it was just… it was everything sort of that was mom perfect. I had told her, I think I’m moving back to the midwest. And then sort of, like, cherry on the top is, so I met this guy. A) I don’t think she’s ready for me to meet a guy. It was a relatively quick turnaround. And, oh by the way, he happens to be a three time felon. But he’s really cute. Like, let me send you pictures, like, the charm will win.
LISA: What’d she say?
JENN: She was just like, oh, that’s not what I was expecting. And I was like, well, me neither. And… but he’s really great and he’s smart and he’s, like, energetic and he hustles and, like, I like all these things that I’ve been wanting in someone for a really long time, and, like, he has those things. And it just so happens to have that he has all these other things. And she was really open. Like, definitely welcomed him without, like, judgment.
LISA: Jenn has worked for companies that do market research and website analytics. And when she met Coss, he was running his fitness company the way he ran his first business: largely in cash, very transactional. Just make a sale. Just teach a class.
JENN: He was just operating it like a drug deal. So it was just like, “Come to class! Pay me twenty dollars.” Like, you know, “Oh, it’s ok you only have ten? Alright, like, I’ll take it.” Like, literally all I cared about was just, like, please stop putting cash in your pocket and buying dinner with it.
LISA: As co-founder, Jenn helped create some structure, set up systems. She started tracking people who’d joined their classes, set up their company email accounts, and documented how money was coming in and going out.
Technology had changed a lot while Coss was in prison. When he was scaling his drug business from 2005 to 2009, he had text, but other user acquisition strategies like Facebook ads, or Google adwords, either didn’t exist or weren’t nearly as common. He was also growing an illegal business, so he relied heavily on referrals and word of mouth. Because he’s now running a legal business, he can advertise much more publicly, and Jenn’s helped him figure out how to do that.
But the biggest thing Jenn did when she came on board—she helped Coss develop the company brand. Jenn spent months working on a mission that more fully embraced Coss’s prison past, and their discussion started with the company name. At the time that she met Coss, his company was called Coss Athletics.
JENN: Coss. I mean, I love the guy, but like, what is that? Barry’s Bootcamp makes sense, if you’re like, Aaron’s Athletics, like, I could almost get behind that, but like, you do know your name’s not helping the cause here, like, the clear fact of, like, you picked a name so that it wasn’t, like, overt. You were trying to remain cautious. You didn’t want to scare people away. But then, your tagline on the postcards is, “Prison Style Bootcamp.” You’re half in and half out, so where ya goin’ with this?
LISA: So, one night Jenn started playing around with words… convicts, offenders, inmates, prison, fitness, body. And finally at 2:30 in the morning, she arrived at something she liked.
JENN: And it sort of just very seamlessly… like it came, it was just like and we woke up and I was like, “So I registered a domain.” And I was like, “ConBody.” I was like, “Whether you like it or not like, we have it in case. And this is the logo I have.” You know, like, one of those, like, he wakes up at 5:30 and I’ve like been up for three hours just, like, wired and excited about, like, sort of something’s happened, and like of course he’s just like, “Oh, that’s cool.” Like, true Coss—subdued.
LISA: They launched the company under the new name and logo in the spring of 2015. With the name change—from Coss Athletics to ConBody—the media coverage of their story started to blow up. They got local press, national press. And with each story, their customer base grew. In January of this year, Coss opened a new studio. He signed a three year lease for the space. And it’s half a block from where he used to sell marijuana and cocaine, sitting on his milk crate.
COSS: Finish strong! Let’s get it! Last one! Last one! Money! Let’s get it! Stand up.
LISA: Coss is training a dozen people in a small room in the basement of the building. Everyone’s sweating and red-faced. Coss coaches the room through a series of push-ups, planks, wall-sits. After watching the workout for just 5 minutes, I don’t envy them one bit.
COSS: Give your partner a high-five. Take a sip of water.
LISA: Coss’s workout is all about using your own bodyweight as resistance. There’s no equipment in the room, just pull-up bars welded into one of the walls. Coss asks three people to step up to the bar, pull themselves up and hold the position as long as they can.
COSS: The battle of the gingers. Come on. Bring it. Hold your feet, Adrian. Oh! Topher, money. Let’s go. Hold your feet over there.
LISA: The people in the class are mostly white professionals in their twenties and thirties. And every one of his trainers—with the exception of his yoga instructor—is a former convict. This is Coss’s mission. Providing a decent job to a population without much access to decent jobs. It’s also part of his brand. A prison style workout, led by a real former prisoner.
Coss tells me when he bring on new trainers, he coaches them on how to interact with their customers. Smile, look them in the eye, shake their hands, ask how they’re doing, crack a joke. And Coss says, something simple like remembering their name goes a long way in building trust. And so far, that coaching appears to be working. All the clients I spoke to loved Coss and his trainers. But, that hasn’t always been the case.
COSS: I mean I had one situation where I um… before the class I actually told my story and one lady that was standing in front of me in the rows, she was like, “Oh my god, you’ve been in jail?” And I was like, “Yeah…” And she was like, “Oh my god, don’t touch me.” And she walked away. And in front of the class, like… and I felt super embarrassed, like… There’s just still people out there. You’re not my target market, like, you’re not my customer. I got to accept it.
LISA: Coss has six trainers. The first one he hired was a guy named Sultan Malik.
Sultan and Coss met when Coss was working at Goodwill. Sultan was there, in the offices, looking for help. He’d been released from prison a couple of months earlier. He was living on public assistance. He’d applied for jobs with no luck, and he found himself telling Coss his story.
SULTAN: I was very concise—I just was released from prison after fourteen years. I’m training people and that’s my agenda, that’s my goal, I want to open up my own company, etcetera. And she smiled at me, and she’s like, “I have someone I want you to meet.” And right across her desk was Coss. And he gave me that Coss smile, I remember very vividly. And he says, “Bro, I’m doing the same thing. It’s just that I have a company established. It’s at its infancy, but, you know, let’s connect.”
COSS: I mean, straight off the back, I heard his, like, honesty and humility. I really felt like he was really just honestly trying to get out of the system and do the right thing and, you know, was hungry.
LISA: Coss told me he thinks every hire is a risk, whether you’re tapping into a pool of people who haven’t been to jail. Or have. And Coss’s unfair advantage is finding the talented people in a population that a lot of employers have written off. Coss knows prison, and he knows if someone used their time in prison well, and made the most of a bad situation. Sultan, for example, finished his high school degree in prison, and did two semesters of college. Coss said, that was a huge point in his favor.
COSS: He was very studious, very smart. Like, you don’t have anything else to do except read book and like study and concentrate on yourself. Some people just lay in their bunks and don’t progress or do anything. And when people tell me that I got my college degree in jail, it’s like, this person was trying to, like, hustle and do something and was trying to progress out of the system that we’re, you know, facing.
LISA: Sultan told me when he was first released from prison, he applied for trainer jobs, manual labor jobs, sorting mail in the post office. He’d get interviews, but every time he’d bring up his prison experience, the conversation was basically over. But Sultan says he refuses to dwell on the challenges.
SULTAN: I don’t have low points. I won’t acknowledge it. I’m free. Not entirely because I’m on parole. And that’s another monster. But, I’m—look. I look at the clouds in the sky, you know, outside of a wall that hides how wide and how expansive the world, the sky is. I remember I would just look up in the sky looking for planes, wondering where they’re going. Saying I’m going to be on that one, going to wherever. Venice. Greece. You know. Africa. Wherever. No low points. I won’t acknowledge it. It’s too much accomplished. The average person—male lives what, seventy five years? I’m thirty six years old. Fourteen years I’ve been in prison, so. I can’t acknowledge that there’s a low. I say no to it.
LISA: When Sultan was locked up, he spent about seven of his fourteen years in solitary confinement. When I ask him why, he says he got into a lot of fights with correctional officers.
SULTAN: I’m not gonna be intimidated by anyone. I’m blessed because it’s a lot of guys in there who were, you know, broken up emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally. I’ve seen ‘em break guys down.
LISA: What kept you sane?
SULTAN: Oh, my mom. My father, my brother, sister. Working out. And belief.
LISA: You’d never know just from meeting Sultan, and talking to him, the types of crimes he’s committed. His rap sheet is long. He’s been charged with attempted murder, assault, kidnapping. He told me he robbed drug dealers.
LISA: Coss does have a line when it comes to who he’ll hire. No sex offenders for example. But when I asked him about murderers, he said, murder wasn’t an automatic disqualification. He’s met people who have killed in self defense
But Coss knows that hiring people who’ve been in prison takes a certain level of trust and faith in people’s good will, despite the evidence. Especially in Sultan’s case.
COSS: I took a risk with him, knowing he was a robber and done all this stuff in his life. And, I remember one day, we were training outside. I couldn’t make it. And I was told him, “Yo,” it was his third session, “could you train for me outside?” There was a couple people who I had to meet there. I was like, “Here’s my keys to my apartment. You could pick up the stuff,” Like, the sign in sheet and things like that. And gave him the keys to my apartment. And, like, went back, and he, like, actually organized my stuff. And I was like, you know, like, this guy is the truth.
LISA: I mean, do you think that, like, with every hire, like, if you are specifically going after people who have been in prison, like, every hire you’re going to have to make this judgment call.
LISA: I mean, I guess we have to do that generally, but like, with someone with a record, there is, like, a greater, kind of, trust factor or issue there.
COSS: Yeah. And that’s the problem that I’m going to be facing the whole time I’m growing this business and trying to blow it up. But, I feel like you take a risk no matter what. Like, even if you hire somebody working and Starbucks and they’ve… you don’t know them from a hole in the wall. They’ve never committed a crime, they can still steal money from the cash register. And it happens all the time. You know? But I don’t feel like you should be counted out for doing something and being judged for it for the rest of your life. I feel like people deserve a second chance. You know?
LISA: Welcome back to Startup. I’m Lisa Chow.
COSS: We’ve been… we’ve gained national… we’ve gained… we’ve gained press and partner… we’ve gained national press and partnerships.
LISA: We’re back where we started this story last week. To grow the business, open more studios, hire more trainers, create the next SoulCycle or CrossFit, become a fitness movement with a social mission, Coss Marte, founder and CEO of ConBody, needs money. Which is why he’s practicing his pitch in a hotel room in Las Vegas.
COSS: We’ve gained… we’ve world class press and partnerships.
LISA: He beat out 300 companies to be here, and is about to pitch, Shark Tank style, to three judges, in front of several hundred people.
A lot of things are weighing on Coss. First, the companies he’s competing against are all impressive, trying to solve some of the biggest global problems: like improving access to clean water, and bringing portable lights to disaster zones that have no electricity. Second, the founders are all white, with the exception of him and one woman, who just so happens to have graduated from Yale, then Columbia, and is now getting her MBA at UChicago. And Coss keeps thinking about the guys at Rikers Island, the guys he visits every week, to train and recruit…
LISA: What’s at stake here for you?
COSS: I think this is bigger than just, like, the money. It’s actually, it shows like proof and, you know, that somebody can come home from prison and make it and be successful. You know, flown out here, Vegas, like, nice room, just being in this position and being in front of faces like, you know, the people that we’re gonna be facing, it’s gonna be a huge impact and I could talk to other inmates about it when I go to Rikers Island next week and let them know, like, what’s going on and, like, I think that’ll bring them all hope. They they lose hope while they’re in there and they lose trust because they’ve been in and out of the system and people have been telling them lies and promises and nobody’s really kept them and I really want to keep that promise in like, creating this movement.
LISA: The statistics on the formerly incarcerated population aren’t pretty. According to one study, imprisonment can mean losing up to thirty percent of your earnings when you get out. About three quarters of people who’ve been in prison, are arrested again within five years.
Coss believes a lot of that is because people can’t find jobs, or aren’t making enough money. He pays his trainers fifty dollars an hour. Right now, none of them work with him full time, but the hope is, with growth, they eventually will.
JENN: Okay, so, I have a couple things.
LISA: It’s a couple of hours before show time. Coss practices the pitch several more times in his hotel room, with his cofounder and girlfriend Jenn. The pitch is coming in just under two minutes, the cut off time, but that’s only if he doesn’t stumble or forget any of his lines. Jenn’s role in situations like these is as coach. And with her prompting, Coss writes the pitch down on a small pad of paper, to cement the lines in his mind. It’s getting closer to pitch time.
COSS: I’m nervous. I’m nervous right… I’ll be okay, I think. I’ll be okay.
LISA: It’s time to leave the hotel room and get to the presentation space.
COSS: I’m ready. I got it. I got it. I’ve, like, said it a hundred times today.
LISA: Coss and Jenn walk down a long hallway.
COSS: Feels like I’m walking down Death Row right now.
JENN: I don’t think Death Row is this pretty.
LISA: We get to the auditorium, which is starting to fill up. I go backstage with Coss as one of the judges, the founder of Toms, the shoe company, Blake Mycoskie, does a Q and A on stage with an editor from Inc. Magazine. Coss second-guesses his clothes. He’s wearing a dark gray suit, while most of the other founders are dressed more casually, in T-shirts and jeans.
COSS: Maybe I should’ve dressed up a little bit startup-y, right?
LISA: Why do you say that?
COSS: Because, like, Blake is dressed with a hipster hat and, like… has, like, some Indian beads. I don’t know what the fuck he’s wearing. And I feel my competitors are looking, like, startup-y. I’m looking a bit corporate-y. But maybe I have to.
LISA: Hey Coss, when you used to like do really nerve-wracking things as a, as a dealer… like, what would you do to relax?
COSS: Smoke a lot of marijuana. Yeah, I was just smoking so much weed. But there’s no weed here. And I can’t smoke anymore, it’s not part of my brand. I don’t know, sometimes I just do pushups and stuff. Obviously I would look awkward if I do push ups here, but I’ll be okay. I’ll be okay.
LISA: So you used to smoke, you used to smoke weed to relax?
COSS: Yeah I was, I would smoke, like, two, like, a half a pound every two weeks. That’s like fifty blunts a day. Between me and Joey. And we used to smoke like two packs of cigarettes each. It’s like non-stop smoking. Like, twenty-four-hour smoking.
LISA: Do you think that was stress relief? Like, what do you think that was about?
COSS: It was just addicting after a while. It was just, like, I need to smoke. And then once you smoke, it’s, like, calming. And then it was just something to do, too. It’s just like… I’d just roll another blunt. It was like a cigarette. Just, like, roll another blunt, roll another blunt. Yeah. That was, that was my life then. Now it’s not.
LISA: Do you ever wish you could roll another blunt?
COSS: No, no. I don’t. I don’t know, I don’t really care about it anymore. I have so much, so much other things on my mind, like, in growing this company and just, making things happen, that I don’t have time to, like, relax and smoke a blunt. I mean, there’s times when I’m walking down the street and I smell some Purple Haze or Solid Diesel and I’m like, damn, that shit’s good, you know. But it’s only like a feeling you get for five seconds and after that, you just walk away, forget about it. Yeah.
LISA: Coss looks down at his phone.
LISA: What is it?
LISA: He just got a text.
COSS: Somebody sent me like a… a passage. Like, Psalm 54, Verse 7:11, I don’t even know who this it is…that’s just weird. In Spanish.
LISA: Can you read it? What… can you translate it for me?
COSS: [reads in Spanish]… like, God, just like… God, he would, like, guide me. He would let me fly like a bird. He would… he would, like, guide me through the desert. He would save me from the tornadoes and hurricanes. He would save me from the torments of the, like, lion’s lung. He sees the violence. And day or night he’ll make his rounds, just making sure that we’ll be safe.
LISA: How are you feeling?
COSS: I’m okay. I’m okay. I feel better. I’m ready. I’m ready.
LISA: You know it’s funny, I just, like, in seeing you read that, it kind of changed your demeanor. Do you feel any change?
COSS: I do. I guess that was my marijuana there. That calmed me down. Everything’s going to be okay, no matter what.
LISA: About thirty minutes later, the MC introduces him.
MC: Cool. So, earlier today, each finalist pulled a random number to determine who would be first and in the order in which they would pitch. So with that, let’s welcome our first finalist. That would be ConBody and it’s founder Coss Marte.
LISA: Coss walks on stage, introduces himself and makes his pitch.
COSS: See, I once weighed over two hundred and thirty pounds and suffered from all types of health issues. And in order not to die in prison, for my… from my obesity issues, I used a simple fitness formula. Work with what you’ve got. And in my nine-by-six prison cell I helped over twenty inmates lose over a thousand pounds after I’d lost seventy pounds in six months.
LISA: And then, after his time is up, the judges ask him questions.
JUDGE: What’s the demographics of your… of the people who sign up for the gym.
COSS: It’s actually ninety percent millennial white females. Which is funny.
JUDGE: Do you know why?
COSS: I think… I think millennials, well, females in general like to take classes. We use no equipment, it’s all body weight, so I think they’re scared of, like, going into the gym, lifting a thousand pounds. They wanna be instructed. Millennials like to support a social mission-driven company, and I feel a lot of our clients come in there just because we’re, like, the only gym with a social mission.
JUDGE: And how did they find out about you? I mean, what’s your marketing strategy?
COSS: So, when I first came—I used the same marketing strategy when I used… when I was selling drugs back in the day. When I was selling, I made ten thousand business cards, I gave it out to anybody that looked rich and grew out a multi-million dollar drug business. I did the exact same thing when I came home. I made about a couple thousand business cards. I went up to every girl with yoga pants, started pitchin ‘em on the street.
LISA: I’m waiting for Coss backstage. He talks to me as soon as he gets off.
COSS: I missed a whole section of the pitch, but I made it up in the question and answer. They started the clock, like, before I said my name, so I was like, I need to cut something out. I need some water, I’m gonna get some water. Oh man. That was… that was a lot of energy. A lot of energy in seven minutes on stage. But I think, I think I did well. I think I did well.
LISA: But as we listen to the other pitches, Coss starts to get worried. Luminaid, a company that won investment on the real Shark Tank show, seems to be impressing the judges.
COSS: I don’t know. They crushed it. Damn.
LISA: We sit through all five pitches. And then, the judges deliberate for about fifteen minutes. The six finalists are brought back on stage.
MC: And now for the moment that you have all been waiting for. Are you all set? All set?
Judge: So, um, so, we’ve decided to change it up a little bit. So, instead of giving one company a hundred thousand, we’re gonna give two companies fifty thousand. The two winners for today are ConBody and LuminAid.
LISA: Coss smiles at Jenn, who’s sitting in the front row, in the audience. There are photos, handshakes. People come up to congratulate Coss, including a woman named Nadine Thompson. She’s a former dean of an elite prep school, she’s run wellness and beauty companies, and she’s here at this startup conference because she wants to grow her new business.
NADINE: It was personally touching for me. I was just going to say, my son is just about facing some time in the next few weeks, and so it really kind of resonated for me. And I looked up and you guys look alike. It’s really bizarre. Yeah, yeah… I’ll show you his picture, actually.
LISA: She pulls out a photo of her son, to show Coss and Jenn.
NADINE: See! That’s Isaiah.
COSS: Oh, wow.
NADINE: He looks like you!
COSS: He looks so young, too.
NADINE: Yeah, he is.
LISA: How old is he?
NADINE: He just turned 20. And made a bad decision one evening and, so, we’re facing that in the next few weeks.
LISA: Nadine says her son was hanging out with three friends, playing video games. The friends called a kid to buy some marijuana, and then stole the marijuana from the kid. They threatened him with an unloaded pistol. All four guys are facing charges.
NADINE: The first trial was a mistrial, and the prosecutor says he’s got a felony and they’re willing to drop it for a misdemeanor but he’d have to do thirty days, and so we’re trying to make a decision as a family whether we fight it or get rid of the felony and do the thirty days and move on with his life.
COSS: I’d recommend the thirty days.
NADINE: That’s what everybody’s told us.
COSS: The problem is, is like, you take that chance. And you think about, like, you don’t want to spend a night in jail, but, you know, thirty days…it’ll happen…
NADINE: Of your life, compared to even six months or a year.
JENN: Your whole life, your whole life is ruined.
NADINE: When you get a felony. Yeah, yeah.
LISA: Nadine is black, and she lives in New Hampshire, where ninety-four percent of the population is white.
NADINE: I think, you know, I think it’s scary for him. I think it’s even scarier to go to trial at this, in this time.
COSS: That’s the scariest part, you know? You just never know what somebody else is thinking, and it could be… race has a lot to play with it, you know, with somebody…
NADINE: Exactly. You’re in New Hampshire. You’re a young black male. What does that mean?
LISA: Another guy comes up to Coss. His name is Alton Chisholm. He tells Coss his step-brother was arrested when he was 16, for armed robbery. And is now serving a twenty-five-year-sentence. Alton says a lot of people he knew growing up in L.A. are in prison.
ALTON: That’s what my neighborhood was, was mostly just, like, kids in gangs.
LISA: Are these, like, childhood friends?
ALTON: Yeah. They’re childhood friends. And when they come out, they want to find a job, they want to live a regular life, but they can’t. I mean, what do you do when you can’t find a job? You go back to, you know, what got you into prison—a life of crime.
LISA: Even here at a startup conference, Coss sees the problem he’s trying to fix.
It’s a big problem. There are two million people in prison in the U.S. Every year more than half a million people are released. If he’s lucky, Coss will create five more jobs this year. Twenty jobs next year. He knows it’s a drop in the bucket. He also knows how hard it is not to return to a life of crime.
It’s hard because employers don’t trust you. Because you don’t always have the education or the skills. And because sometimes it’s hard to go from a lucrative career in crime to a minimum wage job. Coss was in and of jail nine times before he figured things out. And over those years, his family felt frustrated, hopeless. He’s rebuilding his life now, repairing those relationships.
Joey, Coss’s old business partner, is still in prison. I talked to him on the phone, about Coss.
LISA: What do you think, I’m just curious, what do you think about what he’s got going on?
JOEY: I think it’s magnificent. See he possess certain things that I can’t do, like, I’m… I think too… I don’t know, I have a different way of thinking. Like, a lot of stuff that I think is beneath me, sometimes I don’t, like… I’m just very weird.
LISA: What do you mean?
JOEY: I don’t know, man. Like I wouldn’t be able to deal with certain people and not have… like if I don’t have the certain kind of clothes or if I’m not driving in a certain kind of car or if I don’t have certain kind of jewelry… I can’t do certain kind of things. I worry too much about superficial stuff, like, what do they think about me? Or… he’s just the type to go out there and do certain things that I wouldn’t do. Like, Coss has done college. He took a nine to five job. I don’t know if I could ever do a nine to five to job. I mean, I would have to learn quick, because… but, you know, Coss has done things that, that amazes me. He’s just not the same person that I knew and this is, I mean this in a good way, like, he’s completely changed his life around. He’s been able to conform, to be a law-abiding citizen. Me, on the other hand, not that I want to continue indulging in illicit affairs, it’s just… I don’t know… see, I don’t know what kind of… I’ve been trying to look deep into what my skills are and I don’t really have a trade or anything that… I’m not good with my hands. I feel like I’m a good manipulator. Or a good talker. I just gotta know what…
LISA: A good salesman.
JOEY:Yeah, that’s, that’s pretty much what I do. Or at least, in a negative aspect. All I really know what to do is sell coke. I don’t really know much other than that.
LISA: I’ve heard this exact sentiment lots of times, from other people in Joey’s position. And by that I mean, entrepreneurs. So many of them have told me they can’t imagine any other way of making a living. That’s why they start company after company. The difference of course, for Joey, is that being an entrepreneur again in his chosen field, selling drugs, could get him locked up for even longer next time. And if he starts over, he’ll have to start at the bottom, just like Coss did.
But he’ll have one thing going for him.
This time, Coss will be the one waiting on the outside, building a business. A business that won’t get you sent to prison. But also won’t make you millions in tax-free cash. If Joey can be okay with that deal, then Coss says, he’s got a job for him when he gets out.
LISA: Coming up, we’ll have scenes from the next episode of StartUp, after these words from our sponsors.
LISA: Next week on StartUp, when Diana and her husband started a small business, they never imagined it would attract the attention of some deep-pocketed Dallas businessmen. At first, the attention was exciting, but they quickly felt they were losing control of their dream.
DIANA: You know it’s like you write half the story and somebody else say, ‘Let me finish it for you.’ It’s just like no way, that’s mine, I want to finish it. I start that, it was my idea.
LISA: Power, money, and a cash cow of an idea. That’s coming up next week on StartUp.
Today’s episode was produced by Simone Polanen.
It was edited by Alex Blumberg, Peter Clowney, Kaitlin Roberts, Molly Messick, Bruce Wallace, Luke Malone and Eric Eddings.
Mark Phillips wrote and performed our theme song. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. Additional music from the band Hot Moms Dot Gov and Golden Graham.
David Herman mixed the episode, with help from Molly Messick and Matthew Boll.
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