Martha Burger has had quite a career. In fact, she’s had a couple of them. She’s certainly earned her upcoming retirement from the pinnacle of that 40-plus years. She is president of Oklahoma City University (OCU), where she’s not only the leader but also an alumni. During her journey, she’s made indelible marks on OCU and the oil and gas industry, an industry that gave her a start and one she says she fell in love with at an early stage.
Burger is Oil and Gas Investor’s 2021 Pinnacle Award recipient. While accepting the honor, she sat down for a virtual conversation with the 2021 Influential Women in Energy host Jessica Morales for a special virtual event honoring this year’s class.
View the full on-demand video interviews featuring this year’s honorees at HartEnergyConferences.com/Women-in-Energy.
Burger is an accountant by trade and education, receiving her MBA from OCU while working full time and going to school at night. She is also a former Chesapeake Energy executive. Long before taking the university’s reins, she was instrumental in helping build OCU’s focus on educating students for the work in the energy business. That was at a time when the shale revolution was taking off and Chesapeake grew from 100 employees to 13,000.
“I was at Chesapeake at a time when we were growing by leaps and bounds,” Burger recalled. “What we found was, while we hired people with great educational backgrounds, sometimes the specific skills they needed to advance in our company they just didn’t have. Particularly with recent graduates.
“It was a great opportunity. We knew people at Oklahoma City University. It was right down the street,” she continued. “The administrative and academic leadership at OCU just stepped right in and asked, ‘How can we tailor something that helps you get the skills for your employees that they need to succeed?’ It was really fortuitous and helped launch a lot of careers at Chesapeake.”
Burger, who considers the late Aubrey McClendon, the shale icon who co-founded Chesapeake, one of her mentors, said despite the ups and downs, “that we all dread and love at the same time” in the oil and gas business, and the industry is still one of great opportunity.
“If you really look behind [its reputation as old and stogy] and at the investments the energy companies are making in innovation and technology, it is absolutely transformative,” she said.
“You don’t have to be in telecom or e-retail to be around an innovative company. You can find that in the energy industry.”
As president of a university in the heart of an oil and gas producing region, Burger is keenly aware of need for an up-and-coming workforce in the industry. Building that workforce with young students today is much different than when she was a student and when Chesapeake and OCU set out to build a mutually beneficial program to build the skill sets of new shale workers.
“Now, and partly because the world of communication and platforms, and the way we can get news and really keep up with things has changed, our students are so absolutely engaged in the greater community, not just what’s happening at OCU but what’s happening in the world around them,” she said. “It means they ask really tough and challenging questions. Their standards for what they expect in leadership are really, really high, but they are fearless about working on creating change, and I think that’s the big difference.”
She said the industry has changed as well, particularly when it comes to women in high-level positions and diversity and inclusion. But she cautions there is still plenty of work to be done in both areas.
“If you had asked me earlier in my career about [being a woman in energy], I would have said I have not experienced any adverse effects that were gender-based. But looking back on it, I would tell you it absolutely was alive in my world,” she said. “Often, I was the only woman at the table when the senior leadership would get together. You know, that’s different now. The chairs are filled equally by men and women at certain levels at the company. What you see is still when you get to the highest levels of management it starts to change. So we’ve made progress but not enough at the highest echelons of management and particularly at the boardroom.”
Burger and OCU are doing their parts. Burger said one her proudest achievements at OCU was hiring a leader for diversity and inclusion.
“Our students had been asking for more resources in that area, and I am so proud that even when budgets are tight we made the effort and put a leadership position, a vice president position, in place for D&I [diversity and inclusion],” she said. “Now that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of work to do, but we now have someone whose job it is to do the work and make things better at OCU, so I’m really proud of that.”
She has also set OCU up for long-term success financially. With her background in finance, she took a look at the university’s balance sheet upon becoming president.
“I knew what the interest rates were,” she said. “I knew that the municipal debt market was really robust. I took the opportunity to completely refinance the entire right side of the balance sheet for OCU. It was the first time the university had ever issued public debt, with an investment-grade rating at the same time. That really set a foundation for the future of OCU.”
Her advice for the students and young professionals entering the energy business in that future is simple.
“I don’t think my answer has changed much in my 45 years of working. My advice, and it’s pretty tactical, to young professionals I always say over deliver and keep your curiosity high,” she said. “Come early when you can. Stay late. Get the project done before your boss asks for it to be done. If you identify a problem and you bring it to your boss, make sure you bring a solution. Make life easier for your boss. That typically means your boss comes to you when they need help and they are thinking about promotions.
“The other thing goes to curiosity. Be a lifelong learner,” she continued. “When it goes to energy transition and renewables, identify the couple of companies that are making great strides in that area and tune into their earnings calls. Stay up with the publications and what the thought leaders in this industry are thinking. Take a class or two just to keep your mind open and working on new ideas.”
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