Being A B-Corp Is More Than Just A Status With Tristan Louis

Sep 6, 2022

What better way to safeguard our future than to make sure our children are provided with the best resources to set them up for success? Tristan Louis shares Casebook PBC’s vision to alleviate poverty.
HITC Tristan Louis | Casebook PBC




Many of us founders and entrepreneurs start our businesses because we get itchy trying to solve a big problem. My guest is a remarkable serial entrepreneur with so many successes in his treasure chest. He has lived the dream that most of us founders have had. He has started six businesses. Some of them have gone public. Some of them have been bought. Now, he is giving back.

In 2016, he took over as the CEO of Casebook. It’s a SaaS company, but it was started by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and began as a nonprofit. With all his amazing knowledge, he is throwing himself into this company. It’s a public benefit corporation as well as a certified B corp. They are solving some of the biggest challenges we have in our society.

Imagine being someone who needs government assistance and then being faced with caseworkers who have your life in their hands and they are dealing with pen and paper. Casebook is a software platform that makes this all more efficient for everyone involved, making it better for the caseworkers as well as for the people who are needing these services.

What’s remarkable is what his team says about working there. They are some of the most passionate and committed people to the work that they do. It gets them out of bed every day. In this episode, we get to hear from Tristan Louis’ numerous experiences on how he’s built multiple organizations and has had so many successes and what it’s meant for him and for his teams.

Tristan Louis, welcome to the show.

It’s a pleasure to be here.

Tell us a little bit more about your backstory. As much as we want to hear about Casebook as well, I want to hear about your journey a little bit.

I got lucky in that. I started as an entrepreneur early on at the beginning of the dot-com days. It was the early ‘90s. A few people had heard about the internet. I happened to have lucked out into it and saw it as the next big thing. Along with a bunch of other twenty-somethings getting straight out of college who didn’t have a clue about how business works, we figured we were going to change the world. I made the rules as I went along the way and figured out how to build businesses that became transformational.

Back in the ‘90s, I ended up launching one of the first online magazines. It was a magazine about the internet industry, so it was a circular type of thing. We invented the idea of having a conference and a magazine connected. We started experimenting with online streaming, which was new and didn’t work well back then. I worked and managed to take 2 companies public based on that premise, 1 first in the internet arena and the other 1 in the general development arena.

Values are empty unless they are cyclic behaviors attached. Click To Tweet

We were trying to launch an eCommerce shop that didn’t work out so hot. It crashed and burned. I then went and launched one of the first platforms around podcasting. People talk about podcasting, and I had a little bit of background around starting what is being seen as podcasting. That also bumped into the dot-com crash at that point. At which point, everybody was throwing the baby out of the water. Everything related to the internet was considered uncool and untouchable.

I navigated through a rough period, had to lay off over 50% of my staff, and then rebuild from there. I had to rebuild confidence because when you do that massive reduction in the workforce, you have to think about the people that are left behind. We navigated that to an eventual successful exit to a large bank. What the bank wanted to acquire from us was our ability to drive change using technology.

They put us in Toronto. They put us in charge of a small unit within the bank with a large mandate. The mandate was, “Make us relevant in the 21st century.” I was like, “We’ll do that. I can do that,” and not fully understanding the challenge. I looked at what payment would look like in the 21st century and ended up building some of the most critical payment components of our world, like the backend for PayPal, Google Pay, and Amazon.

I continued on and ended up with another bank. I built the backend for Apple Pay. The 2008 crisis happened. Being a senior director in a large bank, I was called into the Fed. There was a room with a lot of smart people who were all panicked. In this room were some of the smartest people in the country in the banking world. The collective understanding was that if the credit would have to freeze up for two weeks, the whole economic system, not just of the United States, but of the Western world would collapse. It takes two weeks to bring the whole world to its knees.

That made me realize that startups are pretty safe. Generally, you freak out in a startup where you’ve got less than a couple of months’ worth of money in the bank. When you start looking at it through this particular lens, the startup is probably one of the most stable places where you can work even though that is not a generally common understanding.

HITC Tristan Louis | Casebook PBC

Casebook PBC: In order for people to really understand and connect to a sense of mission, they have to have some level of urgency and they have to have some level of control over their part of the culture.


I had to navigate a couple of projects along the way. In 2011, I launched a company that was at the intersection of gaming and advertising. I had gotten very sick and almost died in the process. I realized, “My heart is not in building systems. My heart is not in doing this stuff. I want to get back to the startup life. I want to get back to doing something that has an impact.” I had started looking at gamification as one of those things that could change behavior, so I was interested in that stuff. That ended up becoming a company that was acquired by a large advertising conglomerate.

I went on and worked for a political campaign after that in 2016. It wasn’t the campaign that won, and that left me in a deep funk. As someone who had spent the previous years working on technology to make publishing, speech, connecting people, and influencing people by the internet more capable, I felt that we had built tools of destruction. It was hard looking back at the legacy that you were going to leave behind and go, “We haven’t made the world a better place.”

Along the way, I was approached by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a foundation in the child welfare space. In the United States, they were founded by the Founder of UPS who came from a broken family. He felt that there needed to be proper reforms around child welfare. The problem they were trying to figure out was how many children are in the child welfare system. To think that this is the 21st century, it would be easy to have that information. It turns out no one knows. Still, no one knows.

Along the way, I started looking at what was happening around child welfare, juvenile justice, homelessness, domestic violence, re-entry and reinsertion, and the programs for people getting out of jails. I realized that all those things were interconnected and all those things had a couple of things in common. One, it seemed like the 21st century did not exist there. The 20th century was barely starting to get there. There were pens and paper everywhere. There were systems that were being custom built and costing millions or tens of millions of dollars and being rolled out years after they had been requested.

Always, I ended up failing the people. I’m trying to solve one of the most fundamental sets of problems in the world, which is poverty. A lot of money is being spent on this stuff. In the US, it is $1.1 trillion. On that $1.1 trillion, $0.29 on the dollar makes it to recipients. That’s $710 billion every year that is being spent here going to middlemen to continue doing the same thing that we’ve been doing again and again.

People who look at a problem and create solutions are the real entrepreneurs. Click To Tweet

From that little idea of how many children are in the child welfare system, I started wondering, “How do we know what data we should be looking at and what works?” It turns out that there are no standard definitions of poverty. There are no agreements around what pieces of data we should be capturing and as to what works and what doesn’t. Everybody’s capturing that different thing and saying, “My thing works.”

At Casebook, we decided that we were going to build that data set. In order to build that data set, we were going to be able to set up tools that we would give to caseworkers. It would allow them to modernize their world and capture information quickly about the people that they’re interacting with, connecting services to, and reporting on that information. Sitting on the back of all this are the standardized datasets that we could start analyzing. We could go to this type of intervention for these types of people based on demographic and geographic factors that lead to these types of successful or unsuccessful outcomes.

You can get into the analytics of it.

By doing rinsing and repeat on this, our goal is to find what the holy grail is. What works for whom and how do we, on a multi-generational basis, start influencing the trajectory of poverty? A child that enters the child welfare system is going to be an adult in the welfare system. You take a kid out of their house for six weeks at any age after six months and you drop their chances of graduating high school by 94%. There’s got to be a better way of doing things, so we’re building the tools that hopefully will help accelerate the end of poverty by bringing in technology.

Tell me a little bit about your team. Who do you have on your team?

HITC Tristan Louis | Casebook PBC

Casebook PBC: Not all decisions you’re going to make are going to be the right decisions. But your ability to look at the process and assess your decisions allows you to learn from them and avoid the same mistakes from happening again in the future.


What I have on my team are people who like solving problems and doing things that matter. A big line from a recruiting standpoint is, “Come help us build things that matter.” That’s what it comes down to. We have people that are coming in with this sense of mission and goal of doing something greater than themselves. Ultimately, people can take any job, especially people in the technology world. There are plenty of opportunities, but what people stay at jobs for is meaning and a sense of connection that their work is making the world a better place. We’re hiring those types of people.

I’m sure you’ve heard these statistics, but for almost 60 years, we’ve been tracking satisfaction at work. For 60 years, 3 out of 4 people have self-reported that they hate their job. That is mind-blowing to me. Who benefits from that? I can’t think of a customer that thrives when you got someone hating their job. Bosses don’t thrive. The bottom line doesn’t thrive, and yet, this number has been around for so long. I agree with you completely. People want to know that the work that they do matters. If they don’t feel that way, they report that they hate their job. It hits the bottom line. What do you see as the linchpin of your culture? Talk about your culture a little bit.

That has a few components. There’s not one thing. The truth is that our culture is a system of behaviors. We have a set of core values. It is the idea that we are transparent, accountable, and working together. At the end of the day, values are empty unless there are cyclic behaviors attached to them. More importantly, we have a system where communication goes from the bottom up, not from the top down.

In order for people to understand and connect to a sense of mission, they have to have some level of agency and control over their part in the picture. Our job as leaders is to give them a direction and say, “This is what we want to get to.” Reiterate what that direction is and then coach or challenge them when they’re bringing some stuff. Ask, “Have you thought about this?” They will take ownership of the direction that we’re taking.

I am proud that most of the decisions that are being made in our organization are not made by me or by any of the leaders of our organization. They’re made at lower levels. The decision is only escalated if no one at that level can make it. It’s not because they don’t have the agency to make it, but because based on all the information that they’ve looked at and all the peers that they’ve talked to, they are not armed with the necessary context to make that decision. They escalate it up until it eventually escalates all the way up to the senior leadership team, which works with me.

The willingness to be curious and continuously learn is what allows you to become better at what you're doing. Click To Tweet

Did you have this in place with your earlier companies as well or is this something you learned along the way?

It is something I’ve learned along the way. It’s a continuous learning machine at the end of the day. It’s a process that exists as it is now, but may be different tomorrow based on new information that we’re getting. At the end of the day, what we are about is being a learning organization and making better decisions tomorrow than we are making now. I’ve done that across multiple companies. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way.

The other part of the critical decision-making process is that not all decisions you’re going to make are going to be the right decisions. It’s your ability to look at the process and go, “Why did we get to that decision?” It’s not like, “You’re a screw-up.” In some organizations, unfortunately, that’s going to be punishment for making that decision. In our organization, it is more about, “What have you learned from this? What can we do to avoid this happening again in the future?” We’re not like, “This happened. This is a terrible thing.” We’re like, “What are we learning from this that allows us to be better?”

I suspect that perspective is even stronger for you after your experience with the banking industry and knowing that the entire economic system is going to collapse in two weeks. You’re not like, “It’s just a bug in your software. You’re fine.”

There are relatively few decisions that are irreversible. If I were to lead people into a war or something along those lines, the level of consequences is slightly different. The software that we provide does have an impact. If we get some of those choices wrong, we could have a very negative impact on the world. We also have to admit that we’re not perfect. We are going to get some things wrong. We have to be comfortable with the fact that we’re all going to get some things wrong. Being comfortable with that allows us to then go, “We’ve got this wrong. How do we fix it?” Focus on fixing the problem. Fix every small problem before they become a big problem.

HITC Tristan Louis | Casebook PBC

Casebook PBC: As a leader, your job is to influence, not to direct. You set the direction on what mountain to climb or ocean to get across. But beyond that, it’s all about influencing people in that direction but letting them make their own mistakes.


How would you have described yourself as a founder back in the ‘90s? What was your leadership style in the ‘90s?

Confused and wrong. I was an accidental founder in a lot of ways. There are a couple of types of entrepreneurs. There are people that go, “I want to be an entrepreneur,” and I don’t think that those people are entrepreneurs. There are people who are like, “That’s a problem. Someone ought to fix this. Is no one fixing this? I’ll fix it.” Those are the real entrepreneurs. There are other people that are going, “Let me bang my head on this until I figure out how to fix that particular part of the world and make the world a better place in that way.”

Along the way are 1 million things that you don’t know how to do. I’m sure that you’ve had the same experience where it’s like, “I don’t know how to do this.” You learn. You either find the people that can teach you how to do this, the people that know how to do it and hire them, or learn how to do it yourself. That willingness to be curious and to continuously learn is what allows you to become better at what you’re doing. You’re going to make a ton of mistakes along the way, but hopefully, with every step of the way, you do a better job. I’d say, “I’m a better leader now than I was 20 years ago, but I’m a worse leader now than I’m going to be 1 year from now.”

I always say that, too. That’s my mantra. I have a poster that says, “I am not the leader I need to be a year from now, but I will grow.” What was the first quarter you turned as a leader? What was the first big a-ha moment or that face plant moment where you were like, “I am not doing this right.” What was the significant thing that you shifted?

The first time I made a significant shift was to understand that as a leader, your job is to influence not to direct. You set the direction in terms of like, “This is the mountain we want to climb. This is the ocean we want to get across.” Beyond that, it’s all about influencing people in this direction or that direction but letting them make their own mistakes. In some cases, you can see the mistake coming. You’re like, “This is going to go so wrong.” You have to hold back and let them make the mistake so they can learn from that mistake and not make it again. If you jump in, they’re not learning anything.

In some cases, you can see the mistake coming and you know it may go wrong, but you have to hold back and let your team make the mistake so they can learn from those mistakes. Click To Tweet

They feel micromanaged. That’s the number one thing we hear about why someone hates a job. They want to do their work. If they’re constantly being told by their leader how to do it, how is that interesting?

You highlighted it right there. They’re either feeling micromanaged or feeling like they’ve got a seagull manager. The secret is figuring out how to set up checkpoints on a regular basis. They can come into that space, brainstorm with you, and come to their own decisions around the particular problem that they’re bringing to the table based on the questions that you’re asking.

Generally, as a leader, you’re leading more by asking questions than by giving directions. People can internalize the question and stop thinking about how they’re going to get to the place where you’d like them to get to but by themselves. They have to internalize that process and that decision. You don’t have to buy into the decision in order to push the organization in the right direction. As a leader, your job is to make sure that the core values that you’re setting on the cultural level are continuing to remain as boundaries.

If you are seeing someone deviate from those, you remind them that the core values are there and that they exist for a reason. Ask them why are they feeling that deviating from that core value is the right path. It could be that the core value is not correct. At this point, there needs to be a much wider organizational discussion around whether we need to reassess our core values or reassess that one core value in that particular case. It may also be that the person is like, “I had forgotten about that.”

You say, “We aren’t aligned. I don’t think we’re a fit anymore,” and you let them go. We do eat our own dog food, so to speak, at turning the corner because we want everyone to love their job. We better have people love their job here. The one area that has sometimes been challenging a year down the road is seeing someone deviating away from a value, and then having to make some of those tough decisions. Usually, you can catch that in an interviewing process if they’re aligned with your core values, but long-term, it can deviate away and you got to let them go because they’re not a fit anymore. They’re a fit for someone else, for sure.

HITC Tristan Louis | Casebook PBC

Casebook PBC: Make sure that the core values you’re setting on the cultural level remain as boundaries. And when you see someone deviate from those, you remind them that the core values are there and that they exist for a reason.


I noticed on your website how diverse your team is. I saw a lot of diversity. You’ve spoken about that a lot in the past. My team looked diverse from some angles. We were dominated by White women, but that’s not diverse at all. A couple of years ago, I really committed to having a more diverse team. We have a ton of representation now. When people ask me why this was so important to me, I find myself answering with altruistic reasons like, “It’s the right thing to do.” I’m curious from your more seasoned perspective. Why was this important to you? What have been the benefits that you’ve seen through your work for all your organizations for having a more diverse organization?

We build a product that is to be used, hopefully, around the world by a lot of people. That’s what we’re aiming to do. In order to do so, we need to have a product that can appeal to a wide number of people. How can we build a product that appeals to a wide number of people if we all look the same? From our standpoint, diversity brings a diversity of opinions, experiences, and viewpoints. All those are working as filters around the questions and the challenges that are being taught to bear in terms of figuring out how to build and execute our own mission.

We don’t think of our team as diverse. We think about our team as equal. We talk about equal representation. We talk about equity across the organization. From a diversity standpoint, what we set as a goal is there is a census in the United States that gives you a distribution of both gender and race. Why is our company not lining up with that census in terms of the overall distribution? It is not by having a bunch of colored people and women at the bottom and a bunch of White men sitting at the top, but across every echelon of the organization, at every level of the organization, and then across every vertical of the organization.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying we’ve got it right. I’m not saying that we get it right all the time, but that’s what we strive for by setting that direction from the top level saying, “This is what we’re going to get to. This is what our goal is,” and having that influence every decision that we make around hiring. Diversity starts at the top of your hiring funnel. If you are getting a bunch of White candidates in your funnel, you’re not going to get a diverse organization. If you start fixing the representation at the top of your funnel, the probability that you get more diverse employees at the end of it is much higher. That’s part of why we struck right in that particular way.

What would be a reason that another company should commit to a more diverse organization? Let’s say it’s an organization that isn’t serving the diverse population that you are. What are other reasons?

Diversity starts at the top of your hiring funnel. If you are getting a bunch of white candidates in your funnel, you're not going to get a diverse organization. Click To Tweet

What organization is not serving a diverse population? Maybe unless you’re a White nationalist serving White nationalists. If you’re selling broad-based products pretty much anywhere around the world, you are serving a diverse public. There are no products that you can think of that are not going to be better by serving a diverse public.

It’s interesting to me because this is a journey that seemed natural. Getting to the bottom line is what so many leaders and entrepreneurs need to hear. That’s it. What company is not serving a diverse population? I want to talk to you about the public benefit and the B corp piece. We were on track to become a B corp back in 2019. I had a horrible end of the year. I had to divert all my energy to making payroll, honestly. We had to pause all the activities. We were maybe 70% of the way there.”Tell me about that. What was that journey like? Were you a part of that when it became a B corp?

Yes. That was instrumental to both the PBC definition and a B corp. There is quite a change between the two. The Public Benefit Corporation is a legal structure. Think of it as a C corp, but with social responsibilities embedded in both its charter and its bylaws. A B corp is a certification by a B corp lab that attests that you are following those roles across the different stakeholders, which are your employees, the environment, the world in general, or suppliers. It was important to us because it was getting a representation of our values.

We’ve been spending a lot of time talking about values, belonging, and connecting. To me, making sure that we had a B corp would clearly state that what we’re doing in terms of building something that matters or building something that makes the world a better place is not only something that we’re saying. It’s something that we’re standing by from a legal standpoint, which is the public benefit structure. We’ve asked other people to tell us whether we are on the right path to that. That is when the B Corp certification came in. It’s a lot of extra work to get there because there are a lot of things to go through in the process. It is like getting any other certification for your business. It’s about signaling that these are the things that matter.

Has it benefited you in the recruiting process? 

HITC Tristan Louis | Casebook PBC

Casebook PBC: If you are selling a broad-based product for people around the world, you will be serving a diverse public. And there are no products that you can think of that are not going to be better by serving a diverse public.


I’m sure it has. It wasn’t our core goal to have it benefit us in the recruiting process, but it certainly makes it clear and easier in terms of talking to potential recruits. Also, when people are looking at us from the outside prospects, it is that seal of approval that says, “Those guys are putting a system behind what they’re saying. It’s not just anti-marketing messaging.”

That’s great. I love that so much. You’ve inspired me to want to go back on that path for us. COVID changed everything. We went from having an office to being remote. Some of it feels a little bit more daunting. I suppose that the B corp has also probably adapted as we all have. That is wonderful. My last question for you then is, “When you talk about what you’re doing and you think about the next few years, are there other big problems that you’re wanting to solve?”

Do you mean after we solve poverty? I don’t know that I’ll be there to see us solve this particular problem. Maybe we’ll hopefully make a dent within my lifetime. The reality is that this is such a large problem to solve that it presents some pretty substantial and juicy abilities there for us to be there for a long time. Are there other problems that I’d like to see solved? Absolutely. It seems that there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t go, “I’ve got this other thing. I got to focus on that.” I’ve been throwing an ever-extensive list of things that I would like to solve. Sometimes, a friend of mine will come and go, “I’m looking to change jobs or start something new.” I’ll go, “What about those problems here I’m considering solving?”

I hope that you and Casebook continue to grow in the way you want to and you keep making this impact. I agree with you. It is so needed. Thank you for all that you have done to support this underserved community. I hope it continues to go great for you. Thanks for this amazing discussion. I’m grateful for it. We could talk for hours about all of this. I hope that this has been helpful for our audience. I’ll see you next time on the show. Thank you so much.

Thank you. Have a great day.

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About Tristan Louis

HITC Tristan Louis | Casebook PBCTristan Louis is an Internet veteran who has co-founded six companies, two of which went public and three of which were acquired. For a decade, he served as Chief Innovation Officer for HSBC and head of mobile and internet technology for Deutsche Bank, helping drive early efforts around the emergence of the financial technology industry. He has been widely recognized as a pioneer in the field of cash management and mobile transactional systems.

Mr. Louis advises a number of startups and corporations and continues to write about technology for publications like Forbes, the New York Times, etc… He’s also a sought-after speaker and TV commentator, frequently appearing on the likes of the BBC, NPR, CBS, and others to help the public understand technological developments. He currently serves as president and CEO for Casebook PBC, the leader in SaaS software for social services.