John Rush on the Evolving Social Enterprise Ecosystem in Central Ohio

Photo provided by John Rush

When John Rush began contemplating a move from Chicago to Columbus nearly a decade ago to launch what would become CleanTurn, he knew he wanted to do something different. Something bigger and more flexible than a traditional nonprofit. Something that enabled the organization to partner with multiple nonprofits and the public without depending on grants or philanthropy.

Rush had several years of experience working in the social enterprise space in Chicago and said he learned from his experience in the Windy City to shape what he ultimately built here.

Not long after his introduction to central Ohio, Rush met Joe DeLoss, formerly of FreshBox and the now-CEO of Hot Chicken Takeover, and a friendship and pseudo-think tank was born.

“I was coming out of the Chicago experience,” Rush explained. “Joe was coming out of his FreshBox experience. Both of us were disenchanted with the lack of engagement here and asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to encourage the social enterprise space to take off?’ We were working hard to build our own models and businesses, but also to be part of supporting and encouraging others as well.”

Once in Columbus, Rush met Tony Wells of the Wells Foundation, who decided to make an early investment in CleanTurn by financing a couple of dump trailers. Rush was just starting and Wells took a risk, but both believed the investment would be good for the fledgling social enterprise space. The partnership would allow them to leverage each other’s networks and spread, as Rush calls it, “the entrepreneurial vibe.”

Looking back, Rush said the idea of a blossoming central Ohio social enterprise ecosystem was just a pipedream six or seven years ago.

So, when Rush reflects on what’s changed in social enterprise since his arrival here in 2011 and when he looks ahead, what does he see?

Perhaps the biggest change, Rush said, is perspective.

“There is a generation of folks now who haven’t thought in terms of silos in the ways previous generations have thought,” Rush said. “Most people thought up till 10 years ago in terms of nonprofit, private, and public. Government will provide a tax incentive, private sector might donate to nonprofit. But no one ever thought to take the best practices from all three sectors and put them together.”

A few organizations—Rush points to Girl Scouts, Goodwill, and Salvation Army—were dabbling in both nonprofit and for-profit work, but it was, and remains, uncommon.

Rush also said while the very idea of “social enterprise” is evolving, there’s still a lot of ambiguity around the definition.

“Look at the way the two terms are defined. Social and enterprise,” he said. “There’s still a wide spectrum. Some see social enterprise as stereotypical nonprofits supported exclusively by grants. No earned-income strategy. No owned LLCs or diversification of funding or alternative business models. Some say that’s social enterprise. Still others think of a Starbucks sourcing beans in a corporately responsible way with investment strategies built around environmental-friendliness and diverse boards of directors that attempt to do business more ethically.”

“Then,” Rush said, “there’s everything in between.”

That aforementioned ambiguity, those differing interpretations of social enterprise make it difficult to nail down the question, “So, what, exactly, is a social enterprise?”

And that, according to Rush, is part of the beauty of it.

“I like the ambiguity,” he said. “And I think millennials enjoy the ambiguity. Eventually, it will become more defined, and part of that will be market-driven. Seven years ago, millennials had no purchasing power. Now, they’re increasingly part of the market, and they’ve showed a willingness to buy something that has a social cause integrated into the offer.”

As for Rush and CleanTurn, they’ve evolved, too. The business, founded in 2012, has now employed more than 800 individuals since its inception, and 40 percent of those employees are either still with the company or have used employment at CleanTurn as a pathway to other marketplace opportunities. The company’s mission is to revitalize commercial and residential spaces by providing professional interior demolition and cleaning services. The CleanTurn team believes that by providing such professional services they can change perceptions and shatter the myth that a person’s past dictates their future.

“The culture of CleanTurn,” Rush said, “coupled with a wide array of supportive services, life skills training and creative benefits, cultivate and encourage a mindset that seeks to avoid the trap of entitlement and the suppression of perpetual victimization by fostering a realization of the full potential of what it means to be human—and what it means to be on mission together.”

Rush is bullish on the future of both his own company and on the prospects of the social enterprise ecosystem in central Ohio.

Eventually, he said, he hopes for a day when we don’t need to think of social enterprise as a thing unto itself. Instead, he said, it would be ideal if both businesses and consumers eventually said, “This is just what good business looks like.”

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