Woodside Energy CEO, former Houston mayor highlight LGBTQ+ advances, leadership at Ion event

Cherukuri, Bow, O'Neill, Parker

Woodside Energy CEO Meg O’Neill spoke with former Houston mayor and Rice alumna Annise Parker ’78 about LGBTQ+ representation in their respective fields at a June 20 event hosted by the Ion, Houston’s innovation hub powered by Rice University. The fireside chat was a special edition of the Ion’s Visionary Voices speaker series in honor of Pride Month.

“We believe that true innovation thrives in an environment where many different perspectives are not only welcomed, but also celebrated and embraced,” said Paul Cherukuri, Rice’s chief innovation officer, as he opened the fireside chat.

“We will impact it greatly by working together through the different individuals that we have here not only today but through the entire Ion system. That is why this event celebrating Pride Month and featuring two of the remarkable trailblazers in the LGBTQ+ community is particularly meaningful.”

Paul Cherukuri, James Bow, Meg O'Neill, Annise Parker
Paul Cherukuri, James Bow, Meg O'Neill, Annise Parker

Earlier this year, Rice and Woodside Energy announced a five-year partnership aimed at reducing greenhouse gases by fast-tracking the development and commercialization of Rice technology that manufactures carbon nanomaterials from carbon dioxide at scale. “It’s not just innovation theater,” Cherukuri said, “it is an initiative that aims to bring decarbonization technologies from the labs at Rice into the market as quickly as possible.”

O’Neill shared her coming out story at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and how moving to Texas in the 1990s to work in the oil industry made her feel like she should keep her private life separate. Yet as she moved into leadership, O’Neill said she felt the need to let down the barrier.

“Everyone puts on a bit of a persona when you go into a professional setting,” O’Neill said. “Mine was just a sort of thicker layer of veneer. But it did start to weigh on me as I moved up the leadership ranks. It felt like a barrier between connecting with myself and the team I was trying to lead — that there was always something unsaid.”

Both Parker and O’Neill participated in sports — Parker noted that a good number of CEOs have a sports background. The two agreed the connection is likely due to the motivation and collaboration skills that come from team sports such as rugby and softball.

“One of the things that you think about leadership and on a sports field — you know you have to intellectually understand the game, but you have to connect with people through their heart,” O’Neill said. “And at Exxon, I was always very good at the intellectual leadership. But you think about our industry, for example. We have people who challenge us daily about what are we doing on climate change. You know, are we the bad guys in this story?

O'Neill and Parker

“And I can answer that intellectually, but you have to be able to answer emotionally and I have to be able to connect with my team emotionally, because I’m not the only one who faces that. Everyone in this industry occasionally confronts that. So we’ve got to be able to lead from the heart, and if I’m open about who I am, I can lead from the heart as well as the head.”

Parker, who led many Pride parades as the first openly gay mayor of a large U.S. city, brought the conversation to Pride Month celebrations and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. O’Neill said leading an energy company needs resolve and conviction that what you’re doing is right. DEI programs need the same, she said.

“I have absolute conviction that if we have a workplace where everybody really can contribute their best ideas, that we will get better outcomes than a workplace that doesn’t have those ingredients,” O’Neill said. “So setting the stage for that workplace where people can feel safe to be themselves, where we actively celebrate the diversity that we have in the workplace I think is a business advantage. And I’m happy to stand up publicly and I have stood up publicly saying that what we’re doing is right. It’s the right thing for the company, and it’s the right thing for society.”

Learn more about the Ion and events like the Visionary Voices series here.