PC Profile: Cathryn Peirce OPC '12

PC Profile: Cathryn Peirce OPC '12

“Whenever I see a problem,” Cathryn Peirce OPC ’12 said, “I like to roll up my sleeves and address it.”

That would be an understatement. Only 28 years old, Peirce has started several ventures to help marginalized groups build financial wealth, address the question of reparations for racial injustice, and educate students about sexual violence.

Since May 2021, Peirce has been cofounder and CEO of Carbon Zero Financial, which has partnered with Visa to introduce a credit card that allows people to measure and offset the carbon output created by their transactions — their so-called “carbon footprint.” The premise is straightforward: a Carbon Zero credit card automatically invests the user’s reward points into carbon offsetting projects, in theory neutralizing the negative impact of that spending on the environment. Those offsetting activities currently include forest management projects in California, Vermont and Alaska; a wind power project in South Dakota; a solar energy farm in Tennessee; and a project to provide clean drinking water in Rwanda, among many others. Carbon Zero then helps cardholders reduce their carbon footprint by providing custom sustainability suggestions based on their spending.

The company’s motto is, “We’re making carbon-neutral living as simple as swiping your credit card.” Currently, more than 6,600 people have signed up for the Carbon Zero credit card, Peirce said.

Thinking even bigger, Peirce noted that many people have amassed more credit card bonus points than they will ever use (or sometimes even know they have). Carbon Zero soon hopes to broaden its mission by partnering with Visa to let holders of a broad range of Visa cards dedicate some of their existing stockpile of points to carbon offsets or dedicate a portion of their future spending to it. Cardholders might also be able to create their own offset portfolio by directing that their points go to projects owned, for example, by woman-owned or minority-owned businesses.

Though Carbon Zero occupies most of her time now, Peirce has done many other things since graduating from Penn summa cum laude in 2016, where she also organized workshops for the Penn Anti-Violence Education (PAVE) program and headed the campus chapter of V-Day International, which seeks to end violence against women. She spent a year as a Fulbright fellow in Côte d’Ivoire and worked as marketing director for the New York-based real estate technology firm, Compass.

Accountable, a nonprofit Peirce founded and is still building, endeavors to reduce the racial wealth gap by enabling white professionals to, as her website says, “not only acknowledge their white privilege but actually account for it through the reallocation of personal assets into black businesses, communities and mutual aid funds.” Share the Wealth, which she co-founded, organizes free virtual workshops to provide people in marginalized communities with basic financial and investment education.

All have a theme in common. “Money at its root is a mechanism by which we can express value,” Peirce said. “I’m really interested in how we can increase the moral value of money. How do we make it such that, with money, we bring dignity and integrity back to our experiences so you feel good about your consumerism because it reflects your values?”

It is perhaps not surprising that Peirce has a mantra about education, as well. It goes like this: A good education refines your mind. A great education refines your character. She thinks she got both at Penn Charter, which she entered in ninth grade, and which she credits with helping refine her values and motivating her to seek change.

“Penn Charter earnestly was trying to create individuals who applied learning to the betterment of themselves and their communities,” she said. A Quaker education helped her examine her actions and ask challenging questions such as, “Is this improving myself as an individual and my community? Is it purposeful? Is it aligned with my values?”

Staying still is hard for Peirce, who has solo backpacked through 27 countries on four continents, but due to Covid, her “office” has been her favorite velvet chair in the living room of her Brooklyn apartment. Even so, and despite the lockdown, Peirce has more than managed to fill the time.

“It has been quite the year,” she acknowledged, “but it’s so rewarding to look at what you’re doing, the models you’re building and the causes you’re addressing and see your values reflected back at you.” 

– Mark Bernstein OPC '79


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