From directing a criminal enterprise to leading a social enterprise
From being sentenced to 13 years in prison for directing a criminal syndicate, to becoming a UNSW student and starting up a successful social enterprise, Joseph Kwon’s story is one of street smart meets book smart
Growing up in the school of hard knocks, Joseph Kwon didn’t know what a moral compass was. At times it was a struggle to put food on the table, and he turned to a life of crime early on because he thought this was normal and everyone else around him did the same. Kwon started out with petty crime and moved on to build and run a multimillion-dollar drug syndicate – all before the age of 21.
With what he thought was the world at his feet, he celebrated one month after his 21st birthday in the executive suite of the Shangri La Hotel. He ordered room service and shortly afterward there was a knock on the door. He had just completed a drug deal, and with cash everywhere, Kwon – assuming his room service had arrived – said: “come in”.
At that moment, his world was turned upside down. Tactical operations police, wearing black balaclavas and brandishing assault rifles, burst in yelling at Kwon to get on the floor. He was hogtied and placed under arrest.
“It was a surreal moment,” he recalled. “I remember looking outside and seeing the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. For some reason, everything was in slow motion. I thought ‘I’ve seen the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge my whole life’ – but at that moment they were so beautiful. And that was the last view of freedom that I saw before I got locked up.”
Kwon was sentenced to 13 years in prison for directing a criminal enterprise and for the supply of large commercial quantities of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (otherwise known as MDMA). “At the time, I was thinking ‘My life is over.’ But in reality, it was just the beginning.”
Resilience through fitness
Inside, Kwon was one of the younger inmates and he had heard many stories about what happens to younger prisoners. “In reality, that’s not true,” he said. “You just got to be true to yourself and everything will be all right.” There are three categories of inmate, he explains: gamblers, junkies and trainers – and Kwon said he resonated with trainers because it was a way for him to stay positive and escape the realities of prison through fitness.
Training in jail required improvisation, with the use of detergent bottles, garbage bags filled with water and even broomsticks (dumbbells and plates could be used as weapons). Kwon also learned bodyweight training exercises given the space constraints of a segregation cell, during three months in isolation in which Kwon was only given 1 hour in a 4x4 metre yard each day. During this time, he formulated a training program, based on exercises passed down through generations of inmates, all of which could be conducted in confined spaces and with the limited objects available in a prison cell.
“While our training was physical, it was more about strengthening our minds. We could wake up every day in the same place, but as soon as we could train it was like an escape, just for that moment in time,” said Kwon.
Meeting his mentor
About halfway through his prison sentence, Kwon said he was going through a hard time with his mental health ebbing, and he knew he had to make some drastic changes in his life. When most inmates go through this experience, many turn to taking drugs. “But for me, that was not an option,” he said.
“I wanted to do something that I would have never thought of before. I wanted something that would challenge me, and that was to educate myself for the better.” Kwon read Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad and this sparked a desire to learn more: “the language of business is through accounting. So, I went to the prison library, and got myself an accounting book – but it was like seeing hieroglyphics. As soon as I started, I wanted to quit. But fate stepped in – and at that time I ended up meeting an inmate who was a billionaire accountant.”
Not only did his cellmate teach Kwon accounting every day, he taught him about the value of education and about self-worth. “He was the first person to make me read books every night,” said Kwon. “It’s ironic how I found my first positive mentor in a prison, and we’re still friends to this day.”
Kwon later found out that his mentor was a UNSW Alumni, and he decided he wanted to join this university to change the direction of his life. “I heard about this senior lecturer in the UNSW’s School of Banking and Finance, Dr. Natalie Oh, who helped inmates in the past to get accepted into UNSW. And with her help, they all graduated and went on to have successful careers. One, for example, is a practicing Chartered Accountant, another is an investment banker, while a third is finishing their PhD while working at a distinguished financial institution.
"The only difference between criminal and social are the right mentors and support networks along the way"JOSEPH KWON, UNSW BUSINESS SCHOOL STUDENT AND FOUNDER OF CONFIT
“I wanted to be a part of this organisation which provided opportunities to people for what they could become, rather than where they came from,” said Kwon.
He subsequently reached out to Dr. Oh and applied to join UNSW, and clearly remembers the day the prison’s education officer handing him a letter of acceptance. “Since I was sentenced to jail, I didn’t shed a tear because I accepted the consequences of my actions,” he said.
“But the day I was accepted into UNSW, I cried like a little baby because it was like I had accomplished something that was beyond the realms of my reality at the time. And it was all through hard work and self-belief. It’s ironic how the most amazing moment happened in the darkest time of my life.”
The foundations of Confit
Kwon was released early from prison four years early, aiming to make the most of his second chance in life. “When I was in prison, I remember some of the boys getting out – but they came back in not long after,” said Kwon. “They often couldn’t find a job or hold one down, so they ended up getting back into the game. Part of the reason for this is they didn’t have the right support network outside.
“I really felt for these guys, especially because I could picture myself doing the same thing. One night I had this ‘aha’ moment about creating a support network for ex-inmates once they got out of prison, using the same training techniques we used on the inside.”
Kwon started his own bootcamp with a bunch of friends who were able to experience firsthand some of the training routines developed in prison. Kwon also invited some ex-inmates to train, and this led to the birth of Confit (Convict Fitness) and Kwon said his mission and purpose through Confit is to reduce the rate of recidivism in Australia through fitness.
Australia has the 11th highest rate of incarceration in the OECD (with some 43,000 inmates and annual costs of around $4.8 billion) while more than 54 per cent of released adult prisoners return to prison or community corrections within two years, known as the rate of ‘recidivism’, which continues to rise.
“All our trainers have been incarcerated at some point in their lives, and we strive to coach them to become great leaders in the community,” Kwon said. “For years we were told in prison that we were the scum of society and that we would never make it. But we stayed positive and use fitness to overcome adversity and resilience. So now we have a holistic fitness community modelled around the values of freedom.”
And with the advent of restrictions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Confit has grown online as people exercise to stay fit in their own homes. “Overnight I’ve just pivoted my business and moved all my clients online. The living room in my one-bedroom apartment has now become my office,” said Kwon, who described this transition as a “new chapter” for Confit.
The value of education
Kwon’s studies at UNSW have helped him in more ways than one. Now in his third year of a Bachelor of Commerce Degree, one of the first lectures at university for the COMM1000 subject was about creating social change, which was taught by Centre for Social Impact UNSW lecturer, Dr. Alexandra Walker, whose research focuses on large-scale systems change through culture and leadership.
"For me as an educator, I believe we can change people for the better through education"DR. NATALIE OH, SCHOOL OF BANKING AND FINANCE, UNSW BUSINESS SCHOOL
Dr. Walker talked about recidivism rates, homelessness and disadvantaged societies in Australia, and Kwon approached her following the lecture and shared his story. She subsequently introduced him to the Centre for Social Impact (CSI). “It was great to see academics that were actually walking the talk. They were teaching about making a difference, and they’re actually doing that behind the scenes. CSI helped me formulate what Confit is today: a social enterprise with the mission to reduce recidivism through fitness,” he said.
CSI worked with Kwon to develop his social enterprise, and Confit eventually became a case study for an MBA program. Kwon also benefited from UNSW's Founders Coach & Connect program, which has helped build a strong foundation for Confit to scale the impact the enterprise can have on society.
“None of this would have been possible without the right mentors on this journey and the tools and learning provided by UNSW. Now, I’m directing a social enterprise, not only saving taxpayer dollars through reducing recidivism but more importantly empowering the lives of the disadvantaged,” said Kwon.
Dr. Oh reflected on her role and feels she has been in a privileged position where she can help with the growth path of students who have been in prison who need a second chance in life.
"For me as an educator, I believe we can change people for the better through education. Education is for all – especially higher education. There is a stigma that higher education is for the privileged or only for the smart ones. For UNSW, and for other institutions as well, we give opportunities to those who want to be educated," said Dr. Oh, who explained that in her role she acts a bridge between UNSW and those who want to learn while providing a support network for further growth and development.
Reflecting on his journey through life-to-date, Kwon said he didn’t resonate with traditional methods of education and was expelled from every school in his younger years.
“The only difference between criminal and social are the right mentors and support networks along the way," he said. "I was once told that there are two types of smart in this world: there’s book smart, and street smart. The reality is, in society book smart will always prevail. But if you possess the two you’ll be unstoppable.”