As COVID-19 shut down much of the global economy, Visa has had a front-row seat. While known for its label on various credit and debit cards, Visa is one of the largest financial services companies in the world and processes millions of transactions each day.
Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Visa CEO Al Kelly about the last several months in the economy as well as Visa’s newly announced scholarship program aimed at helping Black high-schoolers eventually find jobs at Visa. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: As a guy who runs a company which is intimately involved in most of the transactions that happen out there — a good share of them, anyway — what are you seeing?
Al Kelly: Well, Kai, since mid-March, the world has changed dramatically. We probably have had a three- to five-year acceleration of e-commerce in the last 10 weeks caused by COVID. We’ve seen debit card volume increase much more than credit card volume. This is not unusual, Kai, in economic downturn situations, where people want to be very careful of extending themselves, and so they will tend to use a debit card and a credit card where they’ll have to pay down their balance over time.
Ryssdal: So that all makes sense. And those are interesting trends. I guess my follow-up question is, acknowledging that we’re not in charge, as Dr. Fauci says, the virus is in charge, how worried are you?
Kelly: Well, every medical expert I’ve talked to, Kai, has very different opinions on the coronavirus or COVID-19 in general, but there seems to be quite a consistent view that a resurgence of the virus is indeed possible. And so I am concerned that we are starting to see, perhaps, a little bit too much of a casual attitude toward the coronavirus. We ourselves at Visa hadn’t had a COVID case in a couple of months, and last week had about a half-dozen, and we have 97% of our employees working from home. So I am concerned that we need to stay vigilant as a society, as a global society, to make sure that we allow the economies to remain open. I do think that if this ever got to the point where we are overwhelming medical facilities and we had to shut things down again, it would be quite devastating.
Ryssdal: Visa is doing a lot of work with small businesses. You’re out there trying to get contactless payment things going and working on making things easier for them. And as we know, small businesses have been hit arguably hardest in this pandemic. Do you think we need more stimulus from the government for small businesses in this economy?
Kelly: Well, I think it certainly can’t hurt, and a lot of the early stimulus in the U.S. was tied to payrolls. And unfortunately, small businesses just couldn’t make the commitment to keep people on their payroll. It was just too large an expense. And I think a lot of small businesses really need help with things like rent, and their expenses related to running any kind of business, such as insurance types of expenses. My view is that if we can keep more small businesses up and running, they will employ people as they always have and it will become an outcome which will be very, very important.
Ryssdal: Let me turn now to a much more serious matter, actually, and it’s obviously Black Lives Matter and what’s going on with race in this economy. You have announced Visa has a new scholarship program for Black students coming out of college. You have started to publish data about your workforce diversity. I want to ask you the bigger-picture question, though. And granted, you’re speaking for one company, but it’s a big company. What do you think corporate America’s responsibility is in this moment?
Kelly: Well, I think corporations are very, very important in general and that we certainly need to be cognizant of the fact that we can’t fix every problem in the world, but on certain issues, we can and should be certainly doing our part and ideally playing a leadership role. Black lives do matter, Kai. And we happen to believe that one of the great levers is education. That’s why we announced the Visa Scholars Program. It’s actually Black students as they’re in their junior and senior years of high school and helping them throughout college with not only some scholarship money, but ideally, other programmatic things outside of the classroom. And in a partnership with them, if they do their job, they will have a guaranteed job at Visa. And so I’m extremely excited about being able to do something that I believe is strategic and sustaining and forward-leaning. Yes, we could write checks to different organizations, and we certainly are matching gifts on all of our employees back to double-matching them, but I recognize that we need to do more. We’ve been on the case, we’re redoubling, retripling our efforts because the suppression that has existed for 400 years must come to an end.
Correction (July 1, 2020): A previous version of this story incorrectly described Visa. Visa is a global payments technology company.
COVID-19 Economy FAQs
What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?
Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.
How has the pandemic changed scientific research?
Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.
What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?
Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”
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