As Visa Inc.’s chief lawyer Kelly Mahon Tullier ’92 is one of only a handful of women in senior corporate leadership ranks worldwide. Here’s how she got there.
“I’m just a doer,” confesses Tullier, who has been executive vice president and general counsel at Visa since 2014. Whatever her assignment “I’m tackling it, giving 100 percent or more to get it done.”
She also has been fairly fearless about taking on such “stretch” assignments as one based in Dubai as PepsiCo’s AMEA general counsel, where she covered seventy countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa in 2009–2011. “I mostly lived on Emirates airplanes,” she jokes. Tullier says she is especially proud to have been part of a leadership team in a company that was one of the first in that region to hire women as part of its workforce.
Adjusting to a foreign culture was something that Tullier considered herself an old hand at. In 1980, when she was just fourteen, her parents moved the whole family from Kearny, New Jersey, a Newark suburb used as backdrop for The Sopranos, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where crawdad boils and Zydeco music were among the local pastimes.
“It was almost like moving to another country,” she recalls. “Everything was different, the food, culture, even the language. But it helped me learn to flex my style to fit into a new environment.”
As an undergraduate at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, she paid expenses by working part time at the law firm Keogh Cox and Wilson as courthouse runner, receptionist, and legal assistant. “I think I’m a better leader today because I did those jobs and understand what others in a law firm do,” she says.
Attending Cornell “was a leap up for me in terms of competing in a high-performing environment,” says Tullier. Distressed when her first- semester grades were less than first-rate, she soon turned things around, graduating at the top of her class. That achievement “gave me such self-confidence and confirmed that I was on the right path,” she says.
Former Dean and Professor Stewart Schwab was Tullier’s Torts teacher. “Kelly impressed me with her energy and enthusiasm,” says Schwab. “She contributed much to her class’s intellectual curiosity and camaraderie. I knew she’d succeed at whatever path she pursued.”
Former classmate and friend Jacquie Duval ’92, now partner at Ziff Legal Group, says: “Kelly is able to lead and be part of the team. She has a keen legal intellect, knows how to get projects done and can make anyone feel comfortable.”
Following a clerkship with Judge Sidney Fitzwater in Dallas and trademark and copyright work with the law firm of Baker Botts, Tullier accepted an offer to manage global trademark work at Pepsi’s Frito-Lay division. “I kept on taking on more things there,” she recalls.
Indeed, she did so well that in 2004, at age thirty-seven she was named vice president and general counsel for Frito-Lay—the first woman general counsel in any PepsiCo division.
Four years later Larry Thompson, then general counsel at PepsiCo, singled her out from among a top-twenty list of potential leaders and offered her Frito-Lay’s senior vice presidency and general counsel position for Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, based in Dubai. She accepted, bringing her family with her.
“I was blown away by her energy, enthusiasm, and general presence,” he says. I said to myself: ‘She’s a young lady to watch,’ and I was right. She did a fabulous job in an area of the world where it was challenging to do business and where women had a subordinate role,” says Thompson. “We were proud of what she did to make the PepsiCo legal function a success there.”
In August 2011, Tullier became senior vice president and deputy general counsel of all of PepsiCo. Her success there made her a natural choice when, in 2014, Charles Scharf, then the new CEO of Visa, was looking for key partners for his leadership team.
“Charlie and Visa took a bet on me and my ability to lead an important function in the organization and be part of the senior leadership team,” she says. “It’s something that I’m appreciative of, and I think it has gone very well so far.”
“Kelly is able to balance lots of balls,” says Duval of Tullier. In addition to her career, “she is a very involved mother; she mentors women; and she volunteers with the Tahirih Justice Center,” which provides free legal services to women and children human-rights-abuse victims seeking asylum in the United States.
Kelly continues to be involved in the life of the Law School as a member of the dean’s advisory council,” notes former Dean Schwab. “We are lucky to have someone of her talents and abilities help us shape the school’s direction.”
“The Law School is an important part of whom I’ve become, so I take time to stay involved,” says Tullier. “I tell students: Do something you have passion for; take some risks. Don’t get too fat and happy in a role you feel you’ve conquered but don’t get paralyzed with fear either. Instead, aim to be in that sweet spot where you’re invigorated because there’s more to achieve and learn.”