Interview with Katie Mehnert, CEO & Founder of ALLY Energy
Congrats, Katie Mehnert & ALLY Energy, on being selected as an Inaugural Member of Greentown Labs Houston! Greentown Labs is North America’s largest incubator for climate-focused startups & recently chose ALLY, a rapidly growing, digital company focused on diversifying the clean energy & traditional energy workforces, as one of the first members of the recently opened Greentown Labs Houston. I’m incredibly inspired by Katie, who, in addition to leading & founding ALLY, is also a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Equity in Energy Program Ambassador & founded Lean In Energy.
“To achieve net zero, we need equal amounts of human & financial capital, a dose of pragmatism & allyship. We need ALL people & ALL forms of energy to fully enable the energy transition. Equity, energy & our economy are converging & ALLY is the community where we are creating an ALL-inclusive future together.” – Katie Mehnert, CEO & Founder of ALLY Energy
Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy, joining us from Houston. Welcome Katie.
Katie: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here!
Catherine: So I’ve known Katie for a number of years now, she’s a friend of mine, and we share a lot in common and so I’m really excited to talk to you today.
Katie: I’m excited too! It’s an exciting time in the world of people and in the world of energy transformation.
Catherine: Yeah, that’s for sure. So tell me about ALLY Energy and why you decided to found it.
Katie: Well, I first started out, actually my background is in oil and gas and utilities, and knew about renewable generation because I live in Texas, and believe it or not, 10 or 20 years ago we deregulated the market so I’m very fascinated by it. I’m an oil and gas brat, and after years of being in oil and gas, in a health and safety and sustainability hat, one of the things I took note of is that diverse teams drove better safety, environment, financial, all results. Right? I started to see the connection. And one day I was on a plane, sitting next to a ‘bubba’ who said, “What’s a pretty young lady like you doing in a dark and dangerous business like oil and gas?” And I thought, the public really needs to know more about energy. It is inherently risky, I wouldn’t say it’s dark. It’s brought us a lot of prosperity but we are harming our planet. So it’s about a balance. Of course, on the other side of that, the balance of all men is let’s get some more feminine energy into energy. So these two things just seem to be converging but it took me a little while to actually get the nerve, you know what it’s like, to take the big leap. It took me about two years after that to do that.
Catherine: And you were involved with Pink Petro to start and then changed…
Katie: Well, we started the company as Pink Petro. I went to a dear friend of mine, who cares about the environment, who cares about women, and said, “What if we created a social community for women and energy?” And I said, “We can’t call it Women and Energy. We gotta call it something so ridiculous that it will get people’s attention.” By the way, I’m not a pink friend, I’ve had to learn how to embrace my inner pink. So I said let’s go with Pink Petro, it was catchy, and the whole goal was to make a splash outside of the industry. Because, as you know, we need to draw a lot of talent outside of all forms of energy to get to these challenges. So Pink Petro was it. And then in 2017 I went through, unfortunately, I lost my house, the business, to Hurricane Harvey. I had an Aha! moment, which was: it’s bigger than Pink, it’s bigger than Petro. And, so at some point, Katie, you’ve got to rebrand. And we’ve just grown so quickly, so fast. And started getting calls from renewable companies, “We want to be a part of Pink Petro!” And I’m like, “You’re OK with that?” And they’re like, “Yeah, but when you change your name we will be very happy!” So we landed on ALLY Energy last year, during the pandemic. ALLY is about being a force for good. We want everyone to feel like they’re in this whole decarbonization and diversification piece. And it was my daughter Ally who was brilliant and told me that I was overthinking things and that, “Sometimes the answer is right in front of you, mom.” And I thought, oh boy, Ally, ALLY, sign me up. It’s inclusive, we want to be inclusive.
Catherine: You know Dylan Green is after, Dylan is my son.
Katie: Well that’s fun! That’s fascinating to know that. It’s amazing how our children give us so much inspiration to do meaningful work.
Catherine: I couldn’t agree more. He’s the reason for everything. And I think why I feel, when you talk about low-carbon economy and the environment, it’s not– I guess our generation, to an extent, is having to deal with the ramifications of if, of course. But it’s really the next generations that we’re trying to minimize the impact as much as possible. So I want to talk a little bit more about your oil and gas backgrounds. You worked at Shell and BP. And now you’re more immersed in clean energy, so tell me specifically about how ALLY Energy is helping fossil fuel workers in this transition?
Katie: Well we’ve been in a transition a while. And it’s funny because I think people think, “Oh Joe Biden was elected, we’re in a transition.” No. We’ve been, as you know, in a transition a while. And a transition is going to go on another 30, 40, 50 years. Hopefully we’ll be sitting on the porch with our kids, retired at some point, knowing that we left our mark. But we are working with, we’re doing two things, the first thing we want to do is identify talent pools where we see job loss. And want to make sure that we’re connecting those great talented people with resources. Resources on scaling up, upskilling, but also resources on what kind of jobs they move into. One of the really cool things is that we have a corporate membership. We bring together all of the companies that work with us, that care about this, that care about decarbonization and diversification. And what’s fascinating about it is, you’ve got a lot of renewable companies who are there because they want to work with HR leaders of other companies to help with displacement of talent. We all agree that we are in a talent war, we were in a talent war before Covid, the talent war is going to be very different after Covid, very different. And we actually think we are going to be in a bit of a shortage. So how do we keep people in the energy industry ‘warm.’ We’re trying to address it on two fronts. I, obviously, have a special affinity, I was a professional woman but I also worked in the field. These two worlds are very different. Field work, it’s a way of life, the work in the field is very different than the work that’s done in the office, on an airplane or whatnot. The oil and gas industry has a vast array of opportunities. And so we’re kind of taking it on on two fronts. We’re working to survey groups to determine what they need, what their propensity is to move into clean energy, what skills do they have. We’re also going to work on the company side with hiring managers, to understand what are the skills that they’re hiring for. Like a map, I can envision something that would go on a website. That would say here are some of the possibilities. And then the other front that we’re working on is, like we’re hearing about the coal workers and the embracement of clean energy with the coal community. The coal community hadn’t been addressed. Let’s face it. So I think it’s great that the administration is doing a lot to bring them together. But in the oil and gas space, out in the field, you don’t have unions. So a lot of what I’m trying to do is help the field articulate it’s needs. Because we cannot let the men and women that have built this country, and have built the energy infrastructure, to be left behind. They want to work too, but we need to make sure that we cut through all this negative narrative, political narrative, and get to the heart of it. Which is everyone wants a great job and everyone wants, “clean energy.”
Catherine: So what are some of the challenges that you’re facing with this work and how are you addressing them?
Katie: The biggest challenge that I’m facing is, the last 4 to 6 years, maybe more, we’ve been in this social media revolution where everyone can say what they want to say. And the challenge is that we’ve gotten very divided, right? Everything in this country, at least in America and even across the world, is polarized. This whole notion of polarization is trying to bring people back to the center. I’ll be honest with you, I was raised a red Republican, a conservative. There are certain things that I love about my conservatism, but over time there are certain things that I’m for that might make me appear to be blue. I’m actually trying to make everybody purple. Like the whole goal is to try to get all of the political pieces of this to the side, which is a challenge, given our current environment, and speak from a place of needs. What are people’s needs? From a worker’s perspective, from a professional’s perspective, and from companies and the like. And we want to use technology to try to bring that together quicker. Because the last thing we want to see is anyone lose a job, be out of work, or, God forbid, go work for another industry. This is the best industry on the planet! It fuels tech, it fuels medicine, it fuels the markets. So we want to try to keep that talent warm. But our biggest challenge has been the political noise. So what we’ve tried to do is use our network and use our voice to diffuse some of these things. To take different perspectives to try to get people to who may be leaning one way or the other to come a little closer to the middle.
Catherine: Yeah, I can’t think of an industry it doesn’t impact. I’m thinking agriculture, schools, I just can’t think of anything that it doesn’t impact in some way shape or form. So Claire Brodo Johnson, who as many people know as the co-founder of Sun Edison, I noticed she’s now part of your team. So tell me a little bit about how that happened and what she’s doing with ALLY.
Katie: So Claire and I met several years ago. I called her and I said, “You should come speak at my conference.” And she was like, “Great!” So she came down, she hung with us, we had a couple of utilities folks, mainly oil and gas folks. And after seeing what we were up to she said, “I really want to stay in touch. I love what you’re doing.” And so, earlier this year, she became my first investor.
Katie: Awesome! Yeah, so we are in a seed capital round. We are raising $2.25 million to scale and do some really neat things around our tech product. But the thing that she’s done for me is to open my mind and my knowledge of the world and the capital world, obviously, in clean energy. And she’s also been an invaluable advisor around what it means to go from great revenue to scale. That’s hard because I’ve never scaled. But, we’ve been 40% year on year growth. Until a couple of years ago we started seeing 100% growth. And we’re all feeling the urgency, and feeling the demand, so it just made sense to say ok it’s time for us to raise money. So she’s helping with that.
Catherine: Speaking of which, your group ALLY is, even though you are Houston based, Greentown Labs, a company a lot of people are going to be familiar with in New England, has chosen ALLY as one of the companies they want to be involved in their launch in Houson. So tell me a little bit about how you got involved with Greentown Labs and Emily Reichert.
Katie: Well, I had been watching Emily for years, and being that I am actually a Louisianian, I’m from New Orleans, I had moved as a transplant to Houston. Houston, in the last several years, has had an attempt to put together an energy incubator of different sorts. So when I heard that Greentown was thinking about opening here I was very interested because a lot of the folks that are in Greentown Houston are ex-oil and gas executives, or engineers, builders, who are building things to try and enable this transition. So six years of trying to find my way and figure out my purpose, my home, I found my home with Greentown. And so it’s awesome to see that the energy industry down here is in full force supporting it. After Hurricane Harvey happened in 2017 the mayor worked with city leaders and obviously businesses to put together a resilience and climate action plan, on a local level. I think most people think of Texas as an oil and gas state; it’s actually leading in renewables, a little fact that nobody knows. But we’re making sure that gets out there because we want to remain the energy capital of the world. So we’re going to be the energy transition capital of the world. But they started this climate action plan and launched it last Earth Day. And the goal was, as a part of the action plan, to get this incubator launched here. So they bought a building, they renovated it, and they launched us last week. It was amazing to be a part of the launch. And we’re excited to be a part of it, we’re a platform company, we’re not building something physical, turbine technology, those things, we’re building I.T.. We’re really excited to be a part of the community and serve those entrepreneurs that are looking for great talent because there are going to be people in oil and gas that are looking for opportunities and these start-ups are going to need people.
Catherine: Yeah, and for those people who don’t know, Greentown Labs is North America’s largest incubator, I did not realize that, for climate focused startups. So they’re doing some incredible work. So it’s very exciting.
Katie: The other thing I love about Greentown Labs and Emily is she has a soft spot for female and people of color founders. She’s created a sub community within Greentown, which makes it attractive to be a part of Greentown. Aside from the fact that they are the number one climate tech incubator in the U.S..
Catherine: The last question is focused on something I know to be near and dear to both of our hearts, and that’s diversity and inclusion. Why do you think Diversity and Inclusion is so important in the energy industry?
Katie; Well, my belief is that it gets back to that flight, I had a moment when I realized that environment and equity live on a married index. I wrote about this in my book, I said, “You can’t get to a better energy system, and a more fair system, without equity.” And do I think that “the guys” in West Texas, when they built coal, oil and gas, the industry, do I think they intentionally left people out? No, I look back at that time, and it was a time in history and society when women were not working, when women were not participating. People of color were not participating. So what was built served the interest of those who were creating it. We live in a different world. We live in a social world. We live in a world where everyone wants a seat at the table. We have a lot to thank social media companies for, and also be upset with, because they’ve created division but they’ve also created transparency. They’ve shown what the opportunities are. And so I look at this and say Great! When we reinvent whatever this next era is we’re not going to leave the guys behind, ok? Let’s not make this into a Pink thing because you can imagine I get a lot of that. Let’s make sure we’re inclusive and building upon the great innovation that they started, and including them in the process but bringing more people into this process. And I really truly believe that as we transform our energy system we’re going to transform our economy in ways that will suit Dylan and Ally.
Catherine: Yeah, absolutely! I think that you’re absolutely right that by excluding people it’s sending the wrong message. That we’re trying to be inclusive. So I think that we have to keep that in mind. That it’s about including everyone. Well, thank you so much for your time Katie, I really appreciate it.
Katie: Thank you.