A newcomer takes on the payments industry's biggest struggle: unity

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To succeed at a tough job, you've got to believe in the cause.

This is according to Jodie Kelley, the recently appointed CEO of the Electronic Transactions Association. The Harvard-educated lawyer always loved the art of negotiating in her corporate-law jobs, but it wasn’t until she became a front-line advocate for the global software industry that she realized how exciting her work could be.

As general counsel for the Software Alliance for more than a decade, Kelley traveled around the world confronting companies illegally using software, aiming to convert pirates into paying customers.

“I deeply believed in the cause of enforcing software rules, which made it easier. But it was also an opportunity to develop creative, non-adversarial approaches to resolving problems,” said Kelley, who is being honored as one of this year's Most Influential Women in Payments.

Read more: The Most Influential Women in Payments, 2020

That job, combined with her previous legal work, gives Kelley confidence that she's in the right place as the head of the ETA. She arrived at a moment when its core members — card networks, banks, payment processors, equipment manufacturers and technology companies — are facing unprecedented opportunities and challenges.

This change is coming from newer members, which include the likes of Apple, Amazon and Google — tech giants who many view as disruptors.

The big challenge for anyone leading the ETA now is managing how its 500 member organizations' roles uniquely intertwine as they work to navigate a rapidly evolving retail ecosystem, while balancing new regulations and fraud threats.

Established 30 years ago as the Bankcard Services association — representing the emerging merchant services industry plus independent sales organizations — the ETA today lobbies for the smallest to the largest payments industry players on a much broader spectrum of issues, including defending U.S. payment companies' ability to operate in China.

Jodie Kelley, CEO, Electronic Transactions Association
“I’ve always loved the law and how it structures your thinking,” said Jodie Kelley, the Harvard-educated lawyer who became CEO of the Electronic Transactions Association.

Kelley is only the third executive to lead the organization since it adopted its present name in 1996, but she's not the first woman in the role. Kelley replaced Jason Oxman, who was CEO for seven years, and prior to that Carla Balakgie was CEO beginning in 2003.

"All we had was a bank account and a bunch of file boxes," recalls Balakgie — now president and CEO of the National Automatic Merchandising Association — of starting as the ETA's first full-time employee with a $1 million budget.

When Oxman took over in 2012, the ETA saw rapid growth as membership diversified sharply from the nonprofit's merchant-services roots. "Payments and technology converged, and tech companies joined ETA for the first time," Oxman recalled.

Software and partnerships are now driving forces for the ETA, which operates several recurring annual conferences, educational events and member services that have steadily accelerated. The ETA's committees work on issues including hardware and software, processing, retail technology, fraud and security, payment facilitators and strategy, mobile payments, international operations and professional development, among other areas.

But being a relative newcomer to the complexities of payments doesn’t intimidate Kelley, as she’s spent years steeped in technology issues.

“I love being able to negotiate a solution, understanding who has leverage, what they’ve got and how to get to a resolution,” she said.

Driving effective collaboration is key to that.

“My collaborative skills are strong, I think in part because I know how to bring the right combination of people and resources together at the right time,” she said.

The ETA's broad reach matches Kelley's wide-ranging interests, which are fueled by a love of travel and a voracious appetite for reading all types of books.

A New Orleans native, Kelley was the first member of her family to attend college. After law school she joined Jenner & Block in Washington, D.C., rising to become a partner over 11 years.

“I’ve always loved the law and how it structures your thinking,” Kelley said.

A handful of mentors played a big role shaping Kelley’s career.

“I worked with a couple of guys at the law firm who gave me great advice, and another female colleague there was an important mentor. She's one of the smartest people I know, and showed me how to tackle big challenges and own the outcomes,” Kelley said.

When that woman left the law firm to work at Fannie Mae, Kelley followed her there for a six-year stint, where Kelley assumed a legal leadership role as Fannie's Mae's vice president and deputy general counsel.

Then the opportunity arose to join the Software Alliance in 2009, which was a risky departure from her familiar line of work, according to Kelley.

“For the first time I’d be running a business component, and I had no experience in the software industry so it was stepping pretty far outside my comfort zone,” she recalls.

But Kelley found the combination of business, law and advocacy in Washington perfectly fit her skills and curiosity for new topics and challenges.

Along the way Kelley had to learn to rein in her enthusiasm at times.

“I’ve found it’s important to pay attention to how much you take on. I’m excited by lots of things, but the downside of taking on too much is you risk dropping the ball on something. To be really effective you've got to prioritize," Kelley said.

Growing up in New Orleans, Kelley developed a love of theater and music that her children and grandchildren share.

“One of my favorite events is Jazz Fest in New Orleans — it’s something I look forward to every year,” Kelley said.

After her first six months at the ETA, Kelley feels she’s gaining enough payments industry knowledge to determine where she'll steer the organization next.

“We’re developing the ETA's strategic plan now and it’s exciting. Networking and events have always been our strong suit, along with doing a great job on government relations. I see us leaning in hard to play an important role in developing policies,” Kelley said. “We really want to serve as the place where the industry comes together.”

But Kelley checks herself before saying more.

“I’m interested in so many things and see so many possibilities, but I need to pay attention to how much I’m taking on, and pace myself,” she said.

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