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Visa CEO Alfred Kelly, Jr. on leadership during the pandemic and a year of reckoning for racial injustice

March 16, 2021, 4:18 PM UTC

Over the past year, the pandemic has affected every area of life and business. So it’s not surprising that an interview with Alfred F. Kelly, Jr., CEO of Visa Inc. would start with a discussion of COVID-19. And, yes, the discussion was about COVID’s impact on both the CEO’s business and his life.

Kelly contracted COVID after talking for just 15 minutes with a friend who didn’t realize he had the virus.

“I would describe it,” says Kelly, “as the worst and longest bad flu I’ve ever had. I was kind of down and out for about two-and-a-half weeks.”

But Kelly’s focus during the pandemic remained on helping employees stay vigilant, safe and to keep them moving forward.

“I’m certainly trying to get our 21,000 employees to be part of that world that is behaving in the best possible way so that we can get this pandemic on the other side of us as quickly as possible,” he says.

Kelly joins Fortune’s Alan Murray and Ellen McGirt on this week’s episode of Leadership Next, a podcast about the changing rules of business leadership.

Though an internationally-known brand often seen as part of larger businesses, Kelly discussed the ways in which the Visa plays a strong role in some of the world’s smallest businesses, including mom-and-pop shops.

“Unfortunately there’s been a tremendous amount of small businesses that have closed and a lot of them permanently, which is extremely concerning,” Kelly says. “Small businesses have been one of the losers in this pandemic. And we at Visa think that’s a real problem.”

Kelly discusses the many reasons why small businesses need support and how Visa is committed to helping them. The wide-ranging interview also covered the potential for cryptocurrency, sustainability issues, and an update on Kelly’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and racial justice programs, as well as the role company leaders need to take in moving those programs forward.

“2020 may have been an inflection point in the United States, where our tolerance for racial injustice has reached a breaking point,” he says.

“And it is time for real change where everybody is accepted on equal footing. With no questions asked.”