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By Erica Conti

Lara BalazsEleven Kellogg ladies and I had the opportunity to grab breakfast and chat with Lara Balazs ’00, Visa’s SVP, head of North America marketing in October. Prior to Visa, Balazs held a variety of marketing and strategy roles at Prophet, Gap and Nike. She was recently named as one of Brand Innovators’ 2015 Top 50 Women in Brand Marketing, alongside the Chief Management Officers of the NBA, Nestle USA and JPMorgan Chase.

Balazs has a great affinity for Kellogg, and similar to many of the Kellogg alumni that I’ve met over the years, her energy was contagious. Most of the ladies in the room, including myself, are interested in pursuing careers in marketing, and it was exciting to think that Balazs was in our shoes 15 years ago.

I was pleasantly surprised with how open she was and how interested she was in “paying forward” the professional lessons she learned throughout her career. After the event, I found myself reflecting on two particular pieces of advice she shared.

1. Learn to live in the “gray”

Balazs emphasized that today’s MBA graduates need to be comfortable living in the “gray.” Many of us, including myself, began our careers in academy companies or rotational programs, where we received structured training and projects. This summer, I had the opportunity to work in a more entrepreneurial culture with less processes, and while it was very nerve-wracking at times, it was also exhilarating. I was glad to hear her say that learning how to solve problems in your own way is critical for your success — it gives you the opportunity to be creative and utilize your own unique set of skills and experiences to drive positive outcomes.

2. Be willing to “jungle gym”

Balazs mentioned that she made several lateral moves in her career, all of which were motivated by her desire to round out her skill set. She recommended that we do the same — by pursuing areas we’re lacking experience in and volunteering for high-risk assignments, we become more confident and receive greater visibility.

When I met with Dean Kate Smith last year, she shared similar advice and emphasized that if you’re brave enough to take on a role or project that others have passed on, it may result in the opportunity to make an immediate and lasting impact. I will definitely keep this advice in my mind as I begin my full-time role, and I will think twice before being reluctant to participate in intimidating or undefined projects.

In the end, what I admired most in Balazs was her enthusiasm for striving to be a better leader. Despite her prestigious career and many accolades, she makes it a priority to continually seek feedback and try new ways of working based on that feedback.

I left the breakfast feeling invigorated after spending time with an alum who was so relatable. It made me even more excited about where my career could take me post-graduation!

Erica Conti is a second-year student in Kellogg’s Full-Time Two-Year MBA Program. Prior to Kellogg, Erica worked in marketing analytics at Nielsen in New Jersey. After graduating, she is looking forward to kicking off her own marketing career at her summer internship employer, PepsiCo Chicago.