It’s no secret that it’s a man’s world on the oilfields of Texas and around the world. But former energy exec and marathon runner Katie Mehnert has plans to change all that. In Pink Petro, she has created an online digital channel that aims to empower women in the sector through mentoring, networking, and sharing of information.
“I want to bring Silicon Valley to the energy sector as a whole to power a fresh approach to female development in what’s been a very male-dominated industry. Women need more seats at the STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math) table and Pink Petro will be a vehicle to that end. Together we’ll use our collective voice to reenergize the sector and its reputation,” she explains.
The first of three girls born to an engineer and a nurse in New Orleans, Mehnert’s colorful accent betrays her origins. With a communications degree from Louisiana State University, she spent some years as a business consultant before heading “down the bayou” to Houston to work for the now notorious Enron just before it imploded.
“I always joke my career has been a series of either being there right before a scandal breaks or shortly thereafter to clean up. My mantra has always been ‘why waste a good crisis’. It was a tough year, but because I was seeking opportunity rather than security, crisis ended up being a gift for me.”
Mehnert spent the next few years moving around in energy trading companies until she got into health and safety with Shell, after which she moved to BP to help after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in her native Louisiana waters.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy, but I felt compelled to help my neighbors and the industry. It was meaningful to be part of something much bigger than me,” she says.
When her boss at BP retired, the then 38-year-old Mehnert took the opportunity to explore new pastures (or more likely oilfields) and accepted a severance package. While packing up her office, she came across some cocktail napkins she had sketched on some years earlier during a long-haul flight and shoved them in her work bag.
“Most of my career, I had come across women in the industry asking ‘who do you go to for this and who do you go to for that?’ I’m a member of several different energy trade associations, but I’ve never seen anything that pulls it all together. So trapped on that 20-hour flight, I scratched out some ideas about creating a social channel where women in the energy sector could come together, share knowledge, connect with coaches and mentors – in short find what they need and get to it quickly.”
The cocktail napkins became the center of a discussion Mehnert had with a friend from Halliburton. “Honestly I was thinking it would just be a project until I found my next corporate gig; a feel-gooder, something fun and a great way to help women in the industry, but Cindy [Bigner, senior director of Corporate Affairs] thought it was a great idea and encouraged me to get busy with it.”
One month later, she came back with a proof of concept and Halliburton was in.
“The basic idea is to take the power of social media and apply it to a specific business challenge, in this case closing the gender gap in the energy industry, where women are out-numbered by men 4-to-1.”
The Houston Business Journal got wind of Mehnert’s idea and, after that, things “went bananas”. “We opened social media channels and threw up a start-up page and in 90 days got several thousand people interested. We had to close our request for beta testers early as we couldn’t manage the numbers. At that point, I realized it was no longer a project, there was a business here. So I filed and Pink Petro was born.”
But at this point – December 2014 – Mehnert still only had a concept and no hard solution. Instead of creating a tool, she went to ten tech vendors, finally choosing Jive Software, a communication and collaboration solutions provider.
In eight short weeks, Mehnert created a community for women and their advocates in energy.
“I’ve gotten up every single day and just figured it out. It’s one of those things where you know you are going in the right direction because you are excited about getting into that chair every morning. My mission is to connect people and see great things happen. I’ve been creating this every day and with each step it gets clearer.”
And know this: Mehnert has invested every bit of cash she has – her severance, savings, stocks, everything – into the business. “I believe you have to invest in yourself. That’s the best stock you will own.”
Shell has come on board and together with Halliburton gave seed funding for Pink Petro. You might find the timing odd, what with oil at a rock bottom price and the industry facing turmoil, but where most see crisis, Mehnert sees opportunity.
“This is the best time to be launching. Women don’t need to lose ground because companies are cutting back. I’m hoping this will be a resource for women to recognize that not only do they have the power of supporting each other, but they’ve got an outlet to elevate their voice, a place where they can connect, learn, and grow, and include men in the conversation.”
- L: Love learning because when you are the CEO – that stands for Chief Everything Officer.
- E: Excel at what you’re best at and outsource the rest.
- A: Always remember why you started. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
- P: Push past the doubters, including that voice in your own head.
You’ve got this. Just leap.