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Nov 29, 2018

Q&A with CleanTurn’s John Rush: Quiet Persistence Builds 2000 Percent Customer Growth

John Rush has started three for-profit businesses over the past six years that are committed to creating more stable lives for survivors of human trafficking, recovering drug addicts, the formerly incarcerated, and those that society has neglected. In six years, he has created 668 jobs and expanded his customer base by 2000 percent. CleanTurn’s brands challenge individuals to: “Imagine a for-profit business model focused on our most pressing social service needs. Imagine leveraging the market to maximize social impact. Imagine profit being used to maximize team member development and community impact.”

We sat down with John to learn how he has created success with a population more often associated with failure. A version of this interview first appeared in Columbus Business First on November 22, 2018.

What impact do you want to make and how do you make that happen?
We are in the business of strengthening communities through an empowered workforce by creating profitable social enterprises. We are currently doing this through three growing brands: CleanTurn Demolition Services, She Has A Name Cleaning Services and Third Way Café. We are leveraging the market demand for our services as a means to provide supportive employment for men and women who face significant barriers to employment and to moving forward in a career.

Tell us what supportive employment involves.
It of course includes traditional perks like 401k, healthcare, and career training. But to overcome personnel barriers to independence, we also provide training in life skills, financial literacy, health and wellness, legal aid, court advocacy as well as coaching, mentoring, and professional counseling customized to each individual. We hire, train, and empower a management team that understands both the business and the mission, the issues surrounding both the job and individual lives. This takes time and it costs money to focus on individuals with challenges rather than just hiring the “easy” employee. But it creates a sense of loyalty to the company and camaraderie between management and staff that can actually reduce costs and improve quality

Building a new business is hard enough without adding your social mission.  What is the biggest obstacle you confront?
Leadership in general brings with it the necessity of persistence, commitment to a cause that always remains front and center, and a perseverance and steadiness through high points, low points, misunderstandings, accusations, confusion, tiredness, sadness, mistakes, moments of brilliance and opportunities for beauty each day. It also requires a stubborn “can do/figure it out” mindset that is always learning, adjusting, pivoting and making decisions. If I was pressed to pin point the biggest obstacle I would say it is me – it the person responsible for embodying and living out the sort of leadership I just described. There are days (sometimes weeks and months) where you want to simply quit and throw in the towel. We constantly struggle with the choice of going broad (more locations) versus going deep to really work out the model. Our employees have significant challenges that not all of them can overcome. Should we do more for those we currently employ or expand to do for more individuals exactly what we are doing today?

Is an emotional roller coaster common to all entrepreneurs?
Based on talking to both conventional and social entrepreneurs, definitely all have this roller coaster experience. But the social entrepreneur that is riding that roller coaster is benefiting the community so maybe it gives us greater capacity to get through the low points of entrepreneurship.

What inspires you to run a profitable business with this huge social mission?
I have a strong desire to ensure that how we do business should be the way in which “regular business'” should be done to one degree or another. I believe every business has the opportunity and capacity to integrate into their respective business a cause that goes beyond a singular monetary bottom line. Of course, like any business, men and women are working, providing for themselves and their families. By adding a social mission, we create a means toward the greater end of strengthening communities, building authentic relationships and influencing other businesses and business leaders on how to be far more creative in workforce development than they have ever been before.

How do you suggest other employers become more creative in their workforce development?
In dealing with individuals coming from challenging backgrounds, only five percent is achieved by banning the box in applications asking about prior criminal convictions. Ninety-five percent is achieved by creating a culture and equipping management to deal with people with challenging backgrounds. Executives who want to be a positive part of their employees’ lives and improve their community need to find ways for their paths to cross with these individuals. They need to see them as people and not as statistics. Tour a prison. Take your leadership team to the Ohio Reformatory for Women. Organize quarterly prison visits by groups of CEOs. It is not an easy business. Working with this population is hard. But it will contribute to a stronger, healthier, and safer community.