Five Questions For … Katie Mehnert, Founder and CEO of Pink Petro

Houston—Katie Mehnert watched her father lose his engineering job during the energy industry’s depression in the 1980s, and swore to him she would avoid oil and gas jobs.

But she did eventually join the ranks of oil and gas workers, even deciding to form her own energy startup, Pink Petro, which aims to not only bring more women into the energy field, but also to help them get promoted into higher-level positions.

“I find it the right time to be having these conversations,” Mehnert says. “We launched right as the recent downturn started. We needed to keep people engaged. This crew change had finally come.”

Still, she admits that being a startup founder does take its toll. “I think that’s where a lot of people fail; they run out of steam,” she says. “You just have to remember: It’s a marathon. Some miles are good, and some miles are … .”

In this week’s “Five Questions For … ” Mehnert speaks about being a woman in a male-dominated industry, lessons learned from being bullied as a child, and how a diagnosis of cervical cancer helped her focus on her goals. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Xconomy: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned about managing people?

Katie Mehnert: Not everybody is suitable for the job. You hire people, you think it’s going to work out, and a lot of times it does. Sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it. I definitely feel like the entrepreneur life and corporate life are very different obviously. It takes a different kind of person to be in this chaos of startup life. People come and go. Everybody’s replaceable. I kind of used to think that I wasn’t replaceable. Then I learned young you are.

I lost my first job due to a layoff. Why did I get let go when I was the most productive? Fast forward a few years later—I was a hired gun … I did so “well” I got fired. Clearly, I learned I wasn’t savvy at office politics. I thought working hard and getting the job done meant you’re irreplaceable. What I learned through all of this is you need relationship currency and to build it at every opportunity. I didn’t learn this overnight. I watched mentors and sponsors maneuver. We all have to realize that life and work is about people. It’s a skill we must master.

So I was replaceable. You’re replaceable. In the new economy we all are. And that’s the attitude we all need to take. There’s a new idea on every corner and a disruptive business model at every turn. It’s good we stay on our toes and hustle.

On the managing and leading end, you need to remember, if something doesn’t work out, someone will come along and fill the gap and everything’s going to be OK.

X: Where do you think your drive comes from?

KM: [Pauses to laugh heartily.] When I was a kid, my drive came from … nobody knew where it came from. My parents told me I was kind of born with this innate sense to do things, to go get things done.

Then, later in life, my drive came from a realization that one day I’m not going to be here, brought on by cancer. I had cancer. Anytime you’re faced with your own mortality; it doesn’t matter if it’s stage 4 or stage 0. Hey, you’re getting older and every day you take is a day towards your death. It’s a very morbid thing, but I really live for the day where people stand and say, “She lived.”

[My drive] has gotten me into trouble. People don’t know how to manage you. I had that problem working for people; they didn’t know how to handle me.

When men have drives, it makes sense. When women have drives, we’re bitches.

When I was a kid, I got thrown into the garbage can. I didn’t get along with my peers. They thought I was bossy or a nerd. Every single day in 1986, I got thrown in a garbage can. I never stood up for myself. My dad told me, you shouldn’t put up with that. You gotta fight back. Instead of going to girls bathroom, I went to the boys bathroom. When they tried to grab me, I knocked the [expletive] out of one girl. The boys started laughing. That was a way to outsmart them.

In high school, I ran for office and I lost all six [elections]. But on the seventh try, I won. The kids realized I was serious. When you’re consistently intense … “Oh, she really wants that job.” Authenticity counts.

I didn’t figure all this out until I went to work for a global company and my manager sat me down and said, you are a force and you’ve got to learn to regulate your energy. I’m a positive person but a lot of people out there are jealous. I still have problems with it. And it’s harder now as an entrepreneur. I will go 20 hours. People say, she’s overbearing. She’s showing off.

It’s just who I am. I have to embrace it and do something good with it. The more true I am to myself, the more rewards that come my way. [Success] kind of feeds the drive more.

X: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

KM: I think I’m a true entrepreneur at heart. I broke my leg roller-skating, and I went home in my cast. I made my little sisters help me paint a bunch of cards, and drag me around in a wagon to go door-to-door selling cards. I remember, I called it The Creative Card Shop. I got the neighbors’ quarters to help pay for medical bills. I was 7 years old.

I didn’t want to be an engineer like my father. I watched him lose his job in the ’80s with the oil bust. He was like, “Do not do this job; do not enter the oil and gas industry.” I got to college and decided I wanted to be a lawyer. But I have a little bit of ADD and I couldn’t hack the reading. I like speech and debate; I just didn’t want to do all the book stuff. I got a communications degree, got out of college, and still had no clue. But one of the best things about having a communications degree is that you learn your audience. You know how to ask the right questions, dig in, and learn. It’s served me well. Oil companies not very good at communications. I was once asked, what kind of engineer are you? I said, “I’m a people engineer.”

X: Equity in pay and roles is increasingly in the public’s awareness. Energy is a male-dominated field. How do you navigate that both in your corporate roles and now with Pink Petro?

KM: Five years ago, it was hard. Today, it’s not as hard. It’s a unique time. I think social media and societal forces are creating these bigger-picture conversations about gender and diversity and inclusion. The makeup of the world is changing.

It’s going to have to get easier because the world is getting louder about it. There are a lot of men out there who see their daughters and wives and see the gaps. There are people out there that absolutely believe no problem exists. I’m not out to reach them; I’m not going to change their minds.

X: If you got stranded on a desert island, what’s the one thing you would have to have with you?

KM: My daughter; she makes me happy. (And my husband!) But my daughter, she makes me laugh; she’s entertaining. She is a little mini-me. I get to see a lot of me in her. I could spend every day with her on a desert island and we would find something fun to do.

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