Social Site Pink Petro Aims to Raise the Energy Industry’s XX-Factor

Katie Mehnert wants to leverage social media to support women in the energy industry.

An energy veteran who has worked for both BP (NYSE: BP) and Shell (NYSE: RSDA), she is now developing Pink Petro, a Facebook-like website that she says is the first to be customized around women working in the oil and gas industry.

“I wanted to put together a platform that could create a community of people who could help each other progress in their careers in energy,” Mehnert says. “I’m tired of hearing the news that we don’t have enough women in the industry. I wanted to try to do something about it.”

The site is still in development but Mehnert says it will be a combination of social news feeds with sections focused on learning and development. She says her goals are similar to others who are building targeted social networks, such as Mightybell, a site for self-employed professionals, founded by Gina Bianchini.

Pink Petro will also eventually include sponsored content and a feature similar to LinkedIn’s Influencers, but will not be a tool for recruiters, she says. “There are other sites for that: Oilpro, LinkedIn, Rigzone,” she says. “This won’t be a place to solicit, either.”

The site will be invitation-only, and should launch by the first of next year, Mehnert says. Until then, Mehnert is manning the site’s Twitter feed with tweets on profiles of high-level women or touting campaigns like #5050by2050, which advocate for gender parity in STEM fields. Those who have signed up receive information on webinars with titles like “Making Career Leaps.”

“There’s a lot of talk in the media about women in the C-suite in traditionally male-dominated industries, about them not making it to boards,” Mehnert says.

But, she asks, what about women in the ranks just below that, the ones that need the mentoring and experience that would enable them to be considered for the top spots?

So far, she’s signed on her former employer, Shell, as well as industry giant Halliburton as two investors to help develop the site. She declined to disclose how much the companies invested but says she has spent about $20,000 of her own money in the last six months working on Pink Petro.

Mehnert is starting Pink Petro at a time when the energy industry is keenly focused on employee retention. About a third of Baby Boomers will retire by the end of this decade, and there are not enough people in the pipeline to take over those positions.

The demographic reckoning in energy is more acute because of the havoc wreaked following the crash of oil prices in the mid-1980s. The economic fallout from millions of slashed jobs kept many college graduates in Generation X away from oil and gas jobs, and, so far, there aren’t enough in subsequent generations willing or interested in taking the baton from the soon-to-be retirees. Energy, despite some notable entrepreneurial stories, doesn’t usually have the startup cache of tech hubs like Silicon Valley or Austin.

“My industry is bone-dry for people, period, in the technical space,” she says. “It’s even more bone-dry for women.”

Mehnert saw the origins of this workforce drought firsthand. “My parents were both STEM grads … but in the ’80s, most women stayed at home,” she says. “Then dad lost his job in the oil field and was out of work.”

Watching her family cope with the industry’s shakeup and the loss of her father’s engineering job spurred her to pursue a different career, and she majored in communications. “My dad told me when he lost his job: ‘You don’t want to be an engineer,’ ” she says. “He was a fisherman from New Orleans, and he said, ‘Go be a lawyer or be a fisherman.’ ”

Mehnert enrolled in law school—for a few weeks—and realized it wasn’t for her. Being in Houston, she found herself working in the energy industry. At Shell, a female colleague encouraged her to go after a role in the health and safety division. Mehnert says her lack of technical expertise in the field would have discouraged her from applying obstacle without her colleague’s prodding.

“She said, ‘This is all human, putting a human element to why it’s important to be safe,’” she says. “I would’ve never known to think of it that way.”

That conversation has stayed with her, and led to Pink Petro, she says. “What if we could accelerate that relationship-building over time, woman to woman?” she says. “What if we could use social media to try to accelerate relationship-building and mentorship?”

Certainly, women are not ubiquitous in leadership roles among the world’s giant energy firms. Though recently, a few women-led energy startups have gotten traction.

Allison Lami Sawyer, a Rice University graduate, founded Rebellion Photonics in 2010 and last year won the “Startup of the Year” award hosted by The Wall Street Journal. This past January, Rebellion raised $10 million in venture capital to develop cameras that can detect poisonous or potentially explosive gas leaks in oil refineries or rigs.

And Siv Houmb, founder and CEO of energy security startup SecureNOK moved her company to Houston from Norway after participating in the Surge accelerator program in 2013. Earlier this year, the company signed a four-year contract with Houston-based National Oilwell Varco, or NOV, one of the world’s largest oil and gas equipment suppliers, to deploy its software to Varco’s land rigs.

Other affinity groups, such as Women in Energy, share Pink Petro’s mission. But Mehnert says the key difference is the online nature of Pink Petro. Women can leverage technology to connect when and how it’s convenient for them, not just at meetings or events at set times.

Also, she says, while Pink Petro’s core demographic is women, men are also encouraged to join.

“It used to be companies managed the career path of employees,” she says. “That’s not the case any more; you are the CEO of your career.”

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