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How social technology connects women in the energy industry

Katie Mehnert has a knack for culling opportunity from inopportune situations. Described as a “People Engineer” in health and safety, Mehnert’s repertoire includes companies such as BP and Shell. Eighteen years in the tempestuous energy industry equipped her with a reluctance to shirk away from catastrophes.

“I always seem to be coming in when the sky is falling,” said Mehnert, who’d worked at Enron until the company’s 2001 bankruptcy. “I have this way of either coming in after and cleaning it up or going in before, but I tell people that crisis-hunting is so important. A crisis to me is an opportunity.”

The mantra “Why waste a good crisis?” would prove useful in an unlikely place: an airport tarmac.  During a lengthy flight delay, a man sitting next to her inquired where her husband was—a question Mehnert knows first-hand that women in the energy industry are tired of hearing.

The question prompted Mehnert to hash out a concept for supporting women like her on a cocktail napkin. The napkin scrawl paved the foundation for her newest venture, Pink Petro—a recently-launched online platform centered on women in the energy industry.

Related: Diana Frazier talks the talk about women and oil

Keeping the conversation going

Mehnert describes Pink Petro as a “hybrid model between a Facebook and LinkedIn.” Developed by woman-led Jive Software and powered by Halliburton and Shell, Pink Petro hand-picks members through an application process.

Those who qualify for membership include energy industry professionals such as scientists, technologists, operations specialists—“anyone who manufactures, distributes, trades, markets, explores or develops new commodities and brings them to market,” Mehnert said.

She saw the need for innovative, subscription-based social technology that would connect women beyond their often sparse encounters during business functions.

“[Women in the energy industry] all seem to be in that place where we’re the one-of or two-of in the room, and one of the things I initially wanted to address is just joining us all up,” Mehnert said. “One of the things I think the trade associations and non-profits do really well is give women events and educational things in-person, but the conversations stop after the event. People go back to their office and the conversation doesn’t continue.”

This technology enables energy professionals from all over the world to connect and share ideas.

“One of the things that was really missing was the technology piece,” said Paula Waggoner-Aguilar, Women’s Energy Network founder and The Energy CFO. “(Pink Petro) is about women, it’s about energy, but it’s also about technology that brings everyone together and complements all the energy organizations that promote women.”

Related: Two women from the Texas energy industry pay no mind to men’s club rhetoric

A better understanding

In a male-dominated industry like the energy sector, personal relationships amongst experienced professionals can offer invaluable support and networking—something Mehnert believes is especially challenging for women.

“One of the biggest barriers women have is accessibility to mentors, leaders and people who can potentially be sponsors for them,” she said. “My aim, by bringing this niche channel is to make sure we give women access to each other as well as access to men.”

John Holmes, a colleague and mentor of Mehnert’s at Shell, is one of Pink Petro’s many male members. An advisor to Pink Petro’s development, Holmes believes that establishing a better understanding between men and women will facilitate discussion from which each side can benefit. He hopes male participation will help to challenge outdated assumptions about women in STEM career fields such as the energy sector.

“It is a male-dominated industry, and I think there’s a lot of perception that men don’t need women in the industry, and I think that’s where I can come in to that and work with men to get their stereotypes out of their heads,” he said. “I think a lot of people take it as a challenge because they see this as fitting into the ‘feminine terrorist’ type attitude. If I can put the perspective that no, this is isn’t a challenge, you should be embracing this.”

For now, Holmes said he plays a more observational role within the Pink Petro Community.

“I attend the mentoring circle and broadcasts, and it’s all about listening and understanding,” he said. “I think for me, as a leader myself, I need to understand the position women are in. I think I understand, but I never stop learning—it’s a particular learning experience.”

Branding in a rough market

PinkPetro’s platform features several specialized communities such as Pink Petro University, which focuses on career and leadership development as well as sponsorship, and “The Ex”– a powerful resource for professionals and people between jobs to field concerns and share perspective.

In the midst of the oil slump and its waves of layoffs, The Ex could provide an especially reassuring resource. Kimberly Wilson directs TLR Search, a recruitment agency for specialized energy industry jobs, and recently organized an upcoming Women’s Energy Network conference in New Orleans. A Pink Petro member herself, Wilson recognizes the community’s value as the oil and gas industry hits a rough patch. For those who aren’t employed, Wilson sees the community as a crucial branding and networking opportunity.

“You have the opportunity to be visible, and when you’re visible, obviously recruiters are going to take notice,” she said. “…With all of the layoffs we’ve had in the various companies, people who are doing well and getting jobs are those who have the network and can say, ‘I’m looking, here’s what’s going on, here’s what I want.’”

Build a ‘trusted network’

Reservoir engineer Islin Munisteri experienced a shift in career roles earlier this year. A former BP employee in Houston, Munisteri now works for the state of Alaksa, where she answers legislators’ questions and works towards energy solutions.

As a Pink Petro member and community advisor, Munisteri said she’s enjoyed the “high-value” conversations.

“It just goes into the deeper discussions that you don’t necessarily see online, so it makes you think a little bit and consider things from a different perspective,” she said. “There was one discussion where the president of a company said, ‘I am so sorry to all of the working moms I’ve worked with.’ She would talk behind the backs of these moms who have to leave at 3:30, but now she has kids herself and understands. A lot of folks can empathize with that.”

Other discussions focus around topics such as the difference between employee retention and employee engagement.

“(Pink Petro) is the network that both men and women have been waiting for, but didn’t know we needed,” Munisteri said. “It is open and inclusive, and the hard questions are being asked and answered.”

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