Rising Through Resilience: Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Be vulnerable. It may sound counterintuitive, but in order to build resilience, you first have to let yourself experience emotions. When you try to bury them, they just build up — and, one day, coming pouring out when you least expect it. You have to experience the lows to get to the highs. From cancer to Harvey, I’ve had to let myself feel down and accept support from loved ones during those times.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Mehnert.
Katie Mehnert is CEO and Founder of ALLY Energy, the community for an equitable energy transition. A talent and culture platform, ALLY is powering the energy workforce of the future. Mehnert is also an ambassador to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Equity in Energy initiative and a member of the National Petroleum Council, which advises Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on numerous issues including the energy transition. A wife and mom in Houston, she is author of Grow with the Flow: Embrace Difference, Overcome Fear, and Progress with Purpose.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I grew up in Louisiana, where my dad was an oil and gas engineer. I understood early on the hard work that so many people in the energy industry were putting in. I also came to understand that their work was powering America and the world. As a kid, I learned to be tough, including standing up to a girl who was a bully to me and others. Early experiences taught me that you can achieve big, tough, even frightening goals.
I started off my career in management consulting, and then began my career in energy early, first at Enron. I later worked on helping to deregulate the Texas electricity market at a utility company and then became a global program and change leader at Shell focusing on safety and environment. After seven years at Shell, I was appointed in a senior role as global director of safety culture and operational risk at BP, helping address the Deepwater Horizon incident.
Eventually, I left to start my own business aimed at transforming the energy sector, and building an online community for the industry.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Oh, there are so many! To choose one, there’s the moment I knew I needed to become an entrepreneur. I was on a plane back from an overseas work trip. The passenger next to me, whom I now refer to as “Bubba,” struck up a conversation. When I told him what I did for a living, he asked, “What’s a pretty young lady like you doing in a dark, dangerous business like oil?” He also couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea that my husband was at home in Texas caring for our daughter while I was away.
I was taken aback by the sexist assumption. It was the 21st century, after all! So I did what so many other founders have done: I scribbled ideas on the back of a cocktail napkin which ultimately would form my business, ALLY Energy. So, in a way, I have Bubba to thank for the inspiration that helped lead to where I am today.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There’s never been a community that brings together the entire energy sector in a way that is cohesive, built to provide mutual support, and designed for the new digital reality. ALLY Energy is about fostering diversity and inclusion of all kinds — gender, race, and socio-economic diversity, certainly, but also diversity of views and ideas. And we’re breaking down silos that have long troubled the industry. All too often, people in traditional fossil fuels have been siloed off from those in various growing, greener forms of energy, including hydro, wind, solar, nuclear and more. The idea that we’re all stronger when we work together is central to our ethos.
It’s about coming together for people and the planet, all without sacrificing profits. In fact, there’s widespread recognition that new forms of energy are the future — the future of jobs, economies, and societies. And a lot of research shows that the more diverse and inclusive the workforce is, the more innovative and successful it is as well. We need that.
As for a story, I think one important lesson is that sometimes you just need to spot the solutions that are right in front of you, and not get lost in overthinking things. My daughter made me realize this. When Covid happened and so many things were changing, I was thinking about how to sharpen the vision of the company and rename it. Its original name was Pink Petro, but we had become about much more than gender equality, and needed to reflect that.
My daughter’s name is Ally. She was asking me to come play with her, to get out of the house. I told her I’d be there “in a minute,” and was working on something important. That’s when she said, “You know mom, sometimes you overthink things and the answer could be right in front of you.” I looked up, and there she was! I knew instantly that the name ALLY said it all. We would be ALLY Energy, building allyship — a force for good.
Soon after, the murder of George Floyd and the protests for racial justice made clear that it was the right name for the time we were living through. It’s a call to action. I became even more grateful that my daughter helped me see the purpose so clearly. My ultimate goal in life is to make this planet a better place for her.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many. To choose one, I’d say my best friend Jennifer Emerson. We met in a women’s group at Shell. She was my first ever best friend! She’s always been there for me — well before I became really “visible” in the energy industry and activism. She never judges, knows me deeply, and is always supportive to me and my daughter. I can always count on her.
Years ago, we went to Berlin together to take part in the marathon there. We figured it would be a one-time thing. I was going to run; she was going to skate. But then I got an injury that prevented me from running. So I got to watch her skate, and cheer her on. She said we would return the next year, I would run, and she would cheer me on. I’m not a fast runner. But Jennifer is committed to always finishing what you start, and I learned from her how important that can be. So we returned a year later, and she helped get me through it!
Running a business is a marathon. It’s not easy. It’s a difficult challenge. Jennifer helps remind me to not try to sprint through it — to pace myself, to make sure I’m breathing along the way.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
To me, resilience is about getting kicked in the face and then getting up again. It’s the drive to never give up. It’s a part of what I refer to when I talk about GRIT as an acronym: growth, resilience, innovation and transition.
Resilience is a muscle group built over time. The more challenge and hardship you face in your life, the more opportunity you have to build those muscles. Resilient people are unwavering and optimistic. They’re ready to learn from tough times, find new solutions, and move into new phases of their lives with those lessons learned. They pivot when needed, without losing sight of a goal. When I think of resilience, I think of the song that goes, “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.”
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different from resilience?
Resilience is something you build. Courage is the mindset to do it.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
The first person who comes to mind is Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has seen the city through seven federally declared disasters. From Hurricane Harvey to Covid-19, he has been stalwart and successful. At ALLY Energy, we gave him our first ever GRIT Lifetime Achievement Award.
Recently, he announced that amid all this he has been battling bone cancer as well — and continued working hard for the city. He is as resilient as it gets.
But if I could also choose someone from my own life, I would add my mother. She has proven her resilience her whole life. She put herself through school, and supported our family when my dad became unemployed — a norm in the boom-and-bust cycle of oil and gas. In the 1980s, that was rare. As I wrote in my book Grow With the Flow, her being a breadwinner was instrumental in shaping how I view myself and my role in the world.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
When I started the business, most people said it would never succeed! They wrote off the whole idea that diversifying the energy workforce would be seen as a priority. They told me it would be a waste of time and money, that I was giving up my career for nothing.
There are always critics. It’s really easy to say, “You can’t do something,” when you’re the one that’s not doing it! Don’t give in to that way of thinking. My experience on this journey proves that seemingly “impossible” things can be done.
Did you have a time in your life when you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
That would be Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Where my family lives in Houston, we were relatively safe — until the Army Corps of Engineers released the west side dams in hopes of preventing even worse flooding in other parts of the city. We had no warning, no time to escape. Suddenly, we were flooded. My daughter and I were rescued by strangers in a boat at our front door.
In addition to losing my home, I also lost my business. It felt devastating. I also know we were among the lucky ones because my husband, daughter and I all made it to safety, and because we had the resources to rebuild. (I discuss this in the documentary film Hot Money, featuring Gen. Wesley Clark and Jeff Bridges.)
Coming out of the storm, I not only worked to rebuild, but also became more committed than ever to the mission. To tackle climate change, we need to usher in the most diverse, inclusive workforce to the field of energy. We need all ideas and perspectives. We need to act as one, and stop the bickering.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
When I was 12, I faced down a bully at school. She was always putting kids into the garbage. She got me a bunch of times. I kept trying to avoid her. Then, my dad told me to fight back. So one day when she came for me, I swung at her. She was shocked. It was all that much worse because I did so in front of the boys. It made a difference. She left me alone after that.
I’ve faced work bullies as well. At work, the violence wasn’t physical, it was more structural and psychological. But I learned to stand up to them as well.
I’m also a cancer survivor. I got cervical cancer at age 24, and battled it alone, without telling people. I didn’t want to pop the bubble of an image I had created — that I was building an exciting career, on my own, in a new city. When the cancer returned years later, I didn’t make that mistake. I was a wife and mom, and shared the information with family and close friends. I had a community. I was no longer focused on what other people might think, and was able to put more focus on what I needed.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
Step 1: Be vulnerable. It may sound counterintuitive, but in order to build resilience, you first have to let yourself experience emotions. When you try to bury them, they just build up — and, one day, coming pouring out when you least expect it. You have to experience the lows to get to the highs. From cancer to Harvey, I’ve had to let myself feel down and accept support from loved ones during those times.
Step 2: Build self-awareness. Figure out what’s behind those emotions. What fears and insecurities are at work in your psyche? When I faced cancer the second time, I had to accept that I had spent too much of my life worrying about what other people think. That perspective was drilled into me. I realized that those fears were largely responsible for how I was handling tough situations. Therapy can be helpful in his process, guiding people to understand their own mindsets. The true path to any kind of self-actualization is through being conscious about who you are. A lot happens in the mind, including unconsciously.
Step 3: Dissect your experience. What is it about this experience that is causing you to feel the way you do? What lessons can be learned from it? There are lessons in just about every difficult experience that can strengthen you for the future. Ask yourself what you learned, what you would do in the future, and how you would counsel other people who go through similar difficult experiences. Often, you can even find a silver lining.
Step 4: Rinse and repeat! Keep going along the path you’ve chosen for yourself. I learned this early on, when I ran for student council in school. I wasn’t an obvious candidate, and often felt like an oddball in school. But I knew I could do a good job. So I ran five times before finally winning. That made the success much sweeter! When things are especially difficult, the idea of continuing can feel like too much. But remember that a crisis or chaos can provide an opportunity — the chance to try a new path to achieving your goal. It’s a moment to build your resilience and persevere.
Step 5: Celebrate your successes. I’m the last one to give great advice on how to do this, because I’m often wary of doing this myself! My team members frequently have to point these out to me — holding global events, testifying in Congress, giving a speech about gender equality in Saudi Arabia, being selected for two positions with the federal government (ambassador to the Equity in Energy initiative and member of the National Petroleum Council). I’m usually focused on what I still want to achieve for the company, and don’t stop often to look at what’s already happened. But my team helps me do so, and that’s important.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
It’s all about building a community around energy. I’m over the political squabbles and other divides that prevent us all from working as one team. I even argued in a Newsweek column that “big oil” companies should hire environmental activists like Greta Thunberg! Take all that energy and passion that people have to bring solutions, and have them contribute. Everyone stands to gain from what I call Energy 2.0 — the energy of the future, filled with renewable and other greener sources, as well as carbon reduction and carbon capture systems. This is what we’re building at ALLY Energy: one community around energy. And I’m determined to never give up.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)
In a way, I’ve had this happen already. In the Harvard Business Review, I wrote about my concerns over a step Goldman Sachs was taking to increase diversity and gender equity. I wrote that it may have come from the best intentions, but was misguided and could even be damaging. I soon heard from CEO David Solomon, and we had a great discussion. I was invited into Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Business program and graduated during the pandemic, in a time I needed it most.
I also spoke out about the importance of Lean In, and a team member of mine introduced me to Lean In founder Sheryl Sandberg, who has been very supportive.
Now, you know who I would love to meet? Oprah! She is the epitome of grit. A strong, powerful, self-made woman who has faced so many challenges as a woman of color, she built a media empire and still comes across as every woman’s “gal pal.” I grew up watching her, and see her as a role model for women. She does amazing things. She is a true ally, a force for good, and wants to make the world a better place.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Sign up at allyenergy.com. And join me on LinkedIn!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Photo credit: Weihan Lin