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For many, entrepreneurship is a scary word that’s full of risk and uncertainty. But, for Katherine Culbert, that word always held a totally different meaning: Excitement, possibility, and the thrill of striking out on your own.
So, after years of working successfully as an engineer, kicking around numerous different business ideas, and even going so far as to draft various business plans, she finally did it. She paired up with a past colleague, gathered her courage, and threw herself full-force into running her own business.
Today, she’s the Co-Founder and CEO of K and K Process, LLC, a process safety management (PSM) firm based in Houston, TX. And, while there’s undoubtedly been a learning curve that comes with getting your own business established, Culbert wouldn’t trade her experiences and opportunities for anything.
We sat down with her to find out how she got her start, what it was really like to take the leap into entrepreneurship, and what plans she has lined up for herself and her business next.
After receiving her degree in Paper Science and Engineering from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY, Culbert didn’t waste any time landing her first job. “It was at a small consulting firm that focused on the paper industry at a time when they were looking to diversify themselves to get into other industries,” she explains.
She was the only female engineer at the entire firm. But, for Culbert, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. “I learned a tremendous amount from all the guys I worked with,” she adds.
When it came to pursuing a career in PSM, Culbert explains that it was something that just sort of happened—rather than something she actively pursued. “It wasn’t so much a discovery as it was being thrown into the situation,” she explains, “I was the least experienced engineer on staff when a client called and wanted a full-time, on-site engineer to work on their Pressure Relief Valve Remediation Project, so I got ‘voluntold’ for the project. A three-month assignment turned into eight years of working on that project along with many other PSM and capital investment projects.”
But, Culbert quickly grew a passion for the line of work. “I enjoy the structure of the guidelines and being able to help clients be safe in their operations,” she shares.
While she undoubtedly enjoyed her work, she found herself itching to take her education and career even further. So, she eventually obtained her MBA from SUNY Albany. From there, Culbert transferred to Boston for a few years while working for Tyco Flow Control before making her way to Houston—where she currently works and resides.
Taking the Leap
Culbert had been kicking around the idea of starting her own business for a number of years. “Being an entrepreneur is one of those things that is always in the back of my mind,” she says, “However, I hadn’t had the guts to go for it until now. The industry situation in Houston has been a little disheartening, and that provided enough motivation to just do it.”
And, that’s exactly what she did. But, she didn’t go it alone. Instead, she found a business partner in a former colleague—Keith Farrell, her Co-Founder and President of K and K Process.
“Keith and I met while we were both working for another consulting firm,” Culbert explains, “I felt we would make a good team because he had a good understanding of the regulation and he had a similar passion for ensuring the safety of the industry.
“Katherine is a good fit to my technical abilities,” adds Farrell, “Although Katherine is very qualified to do any of the technical work, we look at problems and issues with very different points of view, and this complements both of us.”
So, how did they decide to go into business together? When they were both struck by the oil and gas downturn, they decided to keep in touch. One of their conversations eventually led them to the realization that they should make the jump, team up, and start their own business—and K and K Process was born.
Making a Name For Herself
Considering that Culbert got her start as the sole female engineer at a firm, she understands that engineering is still an incredibly male-dominated industry. “Yes, engineering is male-dominated, energy is male-dominated, entrepreneurship is male-dominated, the list goes on,” she says.
But, she doesn’t let that discourage her. Instead, she’s placed her energy into making female connections and joining professional associations in order to develop a strong networking, including attending numerous events and activities in conjunction with Pink Petro. “I am always impressed with the high level of professionalism and the great connections that are formed,” she adds.
And, she also finds a lot of value and fulfillment in running her business day to day. “Consulting provides something new every day, which is one of the reasons I love it,” Culbert shares.
One day, she might be on-site with a client facilitating a Process Hazard Analysis, and the next day she might be networking with colleagues at a Society of Professional Women in Petroleum breakfast meeting. One day she might be putting together a proposal for a new client, and the next flying to meet a rig crew before they go out on a platform.
“It is always something different and it requires a complete closet with everything from steel-toe work boots to business suits!” she adds.
As far as what’s next, Culbert knows what often happens to the best-laid plans. “I am really good at making plans and having life throw me a curveball,” she says, “Therefore, I don’t know what is next for me. Right now, I’m looking forward to developing K and K Process and helping clients be safe in their operations.”
She also has a goal of getting on a board of directors for another public company and continuing to inspire young women to get involved in male-dominated industries. “I’m hopeful that some of my activities have helped younger females realize that it is okay to go into a technical field so we build up the number of females in STEM professions,” she says.
And, as far as her advice to those younger women? “It’s worth it, go for it,” Culbert says, “At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade the opportunities I have had for anything.”