Alumni Short

Kelly Mahon Tullier ’92 Talks Change and Adaptability

Ithaca, NEW YORK, April 6, 2018

"Things are changing so rapidly," said Kelly Mahon Tullier '92. As executive vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary of Visa Inc., Tullier discussed the dramatic shifts she's seen in both her industry and her career on March 21 as part of the Dean's Distinguished Lecture Series.

Tullier has been Visa's chief lawyer since 2014, and relishes the dynamism that working in the digital payments space brings. Ten years ago, Amazon wasn't even one of the top twenty retailers, and the mobile payments company Square didn't exist. Now, consumers expect to be able to make purchases using payment technology embedded in their watches, their cars, their fridges. "People are very interested in seamless payment and consuming situations, so they can have what they want without all of the hassle," Tuller said.

Kelly Mahon Tullier '92 Audience member asking Kelly a question. Kelly Mahon Tullier talks to audience in Moot Court Room Dean Peñalver Audience members smiling and laughing Kelly Mahon Tullier ’92 Kelly Mahon Tullier hugging an audience member Dean Peñalver and Kelly Mahon Tullier '92 An audience member asking Kelly a question.

Her legal team of 275 employees spread out across the globe handles the standard issues you would expect-employment law, contracts and the like. But, managing legal affairs for a company that processes payments around the world also means understanding everything from cryptocurrencies to European data protection legislation.

One of the most interesting challenges came last year in India, where a government anticorruption initiative withdrawing high-value bills from circulation caused widespread money shortages. Visa wanted to step in and fill the payment gap, but first it had to figure out how to operate in an environment where cash is king and people aren't accustomed to using cards. "We developed a system of QR codes," said Tullier, "so that when you go into a merchant in India, even if they don't have electricity, you have your phone, and there's a little logo that the phone can read and connect the merchant to your debit card for payment."

Always be ready to jump at new opportunities and take risks, Tullier told Law School students. "When I'm hiring somebody right now, the most important thing I'm looking for is intellectual curiosity and desire to learn, and comfort with change and adaptability," she said. "The one thing I know for sure: in my space in payments, what it looks like today will look very different five years from now. And I need folks who are smart, adaptable, and willing and interested in changing along the way."

Her own career embodies these tenets. After graduation and a clerkship, she joined the Dallas office of Baker Botts, where she became a "soft" intellectual property specialist at a time that witnessed the rise of the Internet. Then, PepsiCo called her with the chance to build her own team and head up that work at its Frito-Lay subsidiary. "I was thirty years old, and I decided to leave the law firm and go to an in-house position to take on this opportunity, which included  M&A, litigation, enforcement actions related to some of the world's biggest brands at the time," she said. "The best part was  I was managing people. I was figuring out the best way to lead people at all different levels of the organization." Tullier was eventually promoted to Frito-Lay's general counsel, becoming the first woman to head legal affairs for a major PepsiCo division.

Tullier spent several years as head lawyer for Frito-Lay. "Then the question came to me: 'What do you want to do next?'" she recalled. "'We love you here. But, we know you have aspirations.'" She mulled a shift to corporate law or securities, but her boss had other ideas: the perfect addition to her portfolio would be an international stint, working in Dubai as PepsiCo's senior vice president and general counsel for the Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Africa Division. Despite having to look up Dubai's precise location on the map, Tullier didn't hesitate for long, and spent the next three years jetting from China to India to Saudi Arabia.

She eventually returned to New York to become PepsiCo's deputy general counsel. Soon, though, she started talking with friends about her next move, and eyeing Visa. "Payments are not consumer products. The issues are very, very  different," Tullier said. "But, it was a fascinating conversion for me and my career at that point in my life, when I was close to fifty years old and having to figure out how to change myself and learn something completely new."

"Whether I could do that, I wasn't sure," she went on. "But I took the plunge. And never looked back."

by Ian McGullam