sonya petcavich

IamA former big tobacco employee with a six-figure salary who quit my job to launch the internet’s only cat boarding website that profit shares with shelters AMA!

My short bio:
Hi Reddit! I’m Sonya Petcavich, founder & CEO of After 5 years of a successful career in big tobacco, I quit my six figure job on July 24 to pursue my wildest kitty cat dreams. My company required employees to sign a NDA but I will do my best to answer more general questions about working for big tobacco!

My Proof:

Can you provide some insight into what the big tobacco companies are trying to do with vape/e-cigs? Do they want those devices classified as “tobacco products” to choke new competing companies with government regulations?

Ha, great question, and that definitely depends on which company you are working for 🙂 Most of the big players take the stance that they want less regulation because they argue that vapor products have less of a detrimental effect to society, thus, don’t punish the manufacturers or consumers with excise taxes since vapor is a “great” alternative to smoking. FDA regulation would mean much stricter manufacturing standards, product proposals, etc. which would also work in favor of the big guys and squeeze out the smaller guys who just make noise.

Do you smoke, yourself?

Nope, I vouched never to touch a cigarette in my life. Have I used cigars and e-cigarettes on social occasions? Yes.

Was your decision to never touch a cigarette based on your work experience, or was it prior to your employment with big tobacco?


Is this common amoung workers?

Many of the younger employees like to try the products and some will go on to use them socially or use them regularly. There’s no pressure to have to use any of the products though just because you work for the company.

Why are cigars okay when cigarettes are so taboo?

Probably because it’s tough to chain smoke cigars…they’re more of a special occasion item. Thus, they’re less in your face multiple times a day. Idk, just a hypothesis.

Although you didn’t use them how flexible was your company with smoke breaks for employees? Did they ever act like coke/pepsi and not want people to smoke other brands on site?

You could take a smoke break basically whenever you wanted. Coke/pepsi comparison…you bet this goes on in tobacco.

Do you spend 99% of your day taking pictures of the cats? I would spend 100% of my day doing that.

Ugh, I wish. When my team and I were working on site design, I set up cat photoshoots and would casually tell my friends “oh, I can’t make it to _____, I have a cat photoshoot.” Half would stare at me like I was crazy and half would applaud my lifestyle. Soon, very soon, 100% of my days will be spending time with kitties in shelters and hopefully doing a shelter promotion tour.

What was your job title that earned you that salary? Do you have any regrets for supporting such a damaging industry? Did the upper ranks of the company believe that their product was harmful or were they as oblivious as their PR statements seem to suggest?

In general, once you’re at the “Business Unit Manager” level or above, your total compensation will be well above $100K with your salary, a bonus, company car, etc. I don’t regret anything in my life as I believe everything you experience is for a reason. I’m a huge yogi (just became certified on Sunday!) and through my spiritual and asana practice, I was able to see that what I was doing eventually got me to a place (now!!!) where I can finally give back to the causes that matter most to me, such as helping people heal themselves through yoga and saving animals. In big tobacco, EVERYONE knows the product is harmful – there are no ifs, and, or buts about this. Big tobacco employees are human and they are what kept me motivated to come into work.

Being that everyone in the industry knows the product is harmful, are there any talks or developments being researched to even attempt to remove some of the more dangerous carcinogens from the product or do they just not care enough?

Big tobacco adapts to the consumers…as more consumers in the U.S. are demanding organic, healthier options, you can bet the behemoth companies will be listening. Just think of Walmart now with their huge organic foods section. Do some research on American Spirit (100% organic cigarette). This brand has seen tremendous success in select markets and I’m sure other manufacturers will want a piece of that “natural” tobacco segment.

Do the big tobacco companies have plans to move into the marijuana business as more and more states will begin to legalize marijuana?

Leadership never shared any marijuana details with us but rest assured, there were always jokes and rumors from all levels.

How many people in the upper ranks of big tobacco actually smoke?

Based on what I saw, the executive level’s smoking rate is lower than the average (~1 in 5). However, there was a higher usage rate of alternative forms of tobacco (dip, snus, e-cigs) in the upper ranks.

What the heck inspired you to quit your job and start a business?

In January, I finally realized what I want to do in life (inspire others) and that money doesn’t buy happiness. Coupled with the fact that my best friend kitty of 17 years died and she was the only thing holding me back from making a radical life change, I figured it was time. It was too easy to get sucked into working for a company that provides a compensation package that can’t be beat, but when I would leave the office everyday, I felt meaningless and as if my life had no value. I wanted to be in charge again so I made the conscious choice to walk away and pave a new path.

Is your cat making too much noise all the time!?

Meowtel expects owners to supply their own kitten mittens to the sitters.

What percentage of your users choose in home sitting (their house) vs sending their cat to a host’s house?

Based on what we have heard thus far from current and potential hosts, the preference would be to sit the cat in the cat’s home. Keep in mind we only launched August 8th and are in public beta so as our user population grows, this could totally change. Kitties are finicky so we kept this in mind when building out the host profiles.

I’d be interested in signing up to host. Does the registration process allow me to limit the distance I’d be willing to travel to cat-sit or could I get an email from any crazy cat lady in the country?

We’d love to have you! In your “About Me” area, just specify where you are willing to travel. When people search within 5 miles of the city/zip you are in, your profile will show up. So no, you won’t get requests from people all over the country!

Can you host more than one pet at a time?

Certainly – especially if you are sitting the kitties in the owners’ homes.

What was your background that led you into the Big Tobacco industry?

As an undergrad studying business at UC Berkeley, I was in my junior year looking for a summer internship. This was right after the 2008 financial meltdown and so many firms cut back on internship opportunities for the summer. I had this notion in my head that I would go into banking or accounting but after interviewing with some of the Big 4, looking at spreadsheets all day wasn’t the thing for me. Big tobacco was recruiting on campus and I ended up talking to some of the employees at an internship fair. I immediately clicked with the people but was hesitant at first because of the fact that the industry is so controversial and I had kind of been a big hippie all my life. The fact that the District Manager I as speaking to could rattle off all the ways the company responsibly markets and sells its products was impressive and I decided to give it a shot. The internship was such a great experience that I then came on board full-time after graduation and the rest was history.

How does one break into this industry (aside from an internship)?

On the sales side, show enthusiasm for business development and taking on a challenge. Because have no doubt, it’s not easy taking a position in big tobacco and having to have those conversations with friends, family, and even your customers about the products you sell and how much harm ‘YOU’ have caused. If you want to work in brand, procurement, finance, etc. or any of the other departments, show an interest in the product, where it comes from, how you can help a Fortune 500 company grow, how you are willing to undertake a challenge, etc. Big tobacco recruits on many college campuses or just go to their websites and look at available positions. Many of the new hires come from word of mouth recommendations.

I work in tobacco prevention, but don’t tobacco companies really only “responsibly market and sell” their products because of all the tobacco control laws in place?

Nope, not the case. Some of the companies ignore the potential harm they could cause and CHOOSE to place point of sale signage or merchandising displays right at children’s eye level or within their reach on checkout counters. Other companies, although it is not required of them, take a much more conservative approach and require whoever partners with them to merchandise their products behind counters by a specific amount of inches, out of the reach of kids, etc. It’s interesting to read the company values of each player in the industry as it can reveal a lot about how proactive they are in going above and beyond what is asked of them by the government.

What exactly did you do in your job?

I had several different roles. I was primarily charged with working directly with retail and wholesale trade partners and providing them with solutions which can grow their tobacco categories and overall business. Almost like a consulting role. I also had the pleasure of leading up a team of 6 sales reps and working in HQ.

Can you please talk about how the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 affected big tobacco? And why was menthol given a break?

Excellent question! Regardless of who you were in big tobacco, this act was pretty terrifying and the first big piece of legislation since the MSA. As a result of this, the one change which affected the sales side was product labeling, i.e., “Marlboro Lights” became “Marlboro Gold.” When you change a product descriptor, you have to ensure all point of sale and any marketing materials have been updated which can be a hurdle. Manufacturing materials have to be updated to reflect the new descriptors. Your sales force has to be trained to not say the old verbiage. It’s a lot. My understanding is that menthol was given a break because it is such a large segment of total cigarette sales, and at the time, Lorillard’s main chunk of revenue. (Disclaimer: this Act came slightly before my time) but I think the menthol thing had something to do with Anti-Trust and it would be unfair to put a big player like LOR at such a disadvantage. Sorry you can’t buy clove cigarettes! Write to your congressman 🙂

Do the people who are in charge of marketing and responsible for providing a positive image for their products (cigarettes), actually believe their products to be less dangerous than scientific studies have proven otherwise? The reason I ask is because it’s insane the level of disconnect there appears to be with most top-tier execs (in most companies that provide unhealthy products) and the image they are selling as opposed to the image of reality.

What it comes down to is advertising. No matter what the company is selling – cheesy puffs, fermented tobacco, books, or water, you’ll always want to shed your product in the most positive light to gain the most traction with your consumers. So if scientific studies have proven that it’s less dangerous, the ad masters will use that to their advantage even if deep down they know that the studies may be wrong. Science. NASA. Can’t go wrong, right? I’m completely with you on the disconnect. If I had to make a statement on behalf of my former peers, it would be that next to no one in big tobacco thinks cigar are good for anybody. But if you enjoy using the product, then whichever big tobacco company you represent, they would prefer that you choose their product.

How scared is big tobacco over the huge success of vaping that’s taking lots of money away from them?

Good question because this is a huge misconception to people who aren’t close to the industry. When vapor took off about 2 years ago, everyone flipped out and thought the entire world would switch from smoking to vaping almost immediately. When you take a step back, you see that vapor, despite its rapid growth, is still such a small sliver of the total tobacco pie. So in a nutshell, I would say big tobacco is definitely keeping it on the radar but not too concerned.

This is a pretty niche question and probably not in your area of expertise, but I recently saw the documentary “Merchants of Doubt” (trailer here, good summary), which is about how tactics developed by Big Tobacco to counter anti-smoking campaigns have proliferated into broader denial-of-science movements currently transpiring, especially in regards to global climate change. Do you have any thoughts, opinions, comments, etc. that you can or would like to share regarding this documentary or your possible involvement regarding this?

OH MAN! Alright, just watched the trailer and you’ve got me all excited about watching that. I love me a good documentary and have watched a plethora of the food industry ones out there. My own opinion is that all of the revolving doors we have going on between DC, big tobacco, agriculture, you name it, will only result in this country regressing since policies are formed for the wrong reasons. I wasn’t close to government affairs and didn’t personally know anybody who has been involved with “teaching other industries to lie” so I’m sorry to say, I don’t have much for you. But thanks for sharing the trailer!

Is there any guilt felt in the industry at the health consequences?

Definitely. The coworkers I was surrounded by are candid, honest, good people. I had an emotional conversation the other week with a peer of mine who is a mother of two. Her kids are at the age where their friends now ask what “so and so’s mommy” does for a living and she admits, it has been incredibly difficult to discuss it with her kids and their friends who she works for. It was challenging working in big tobacco because you, as an individual, are blamed for all of the mistakes the industry made decades past. The only thing I could do, and still have to do, is own up to it and provide as much empathy and compassion as I can for whoever I am having the conversation with.

Do big tobacco companies think they will be around long term?

Big tobacco companies certainly think they will be around long term…MO, RAI, etc. are publicly traded so even if they don’t sell the traditional version of tobacco via cigarettes, they’ll be selling something for years to come.

Meowtel looks interesting, but doesn’t seem to be in my area yet.

Meowtel just launched on August 8 so we have a lot of room to grow. Because it is a marketplace model (we need users to become hosts before any cat can be sat), at this point we are very much relying on people across the country to sign up as sitters/hosts 🙂 With that being said, we’re focusing in Southern California right now and then will expand as quickly as possible!

It seems like a huge trade off, do you ever regret leaving? Does your current job bring more happiness and meaning to your life? Are you making less/not having the opportunities you had with your old job?

My last day was July 24 and I was pretty much an emotional wreck the following week. I kept second-guessing my decision and going into panic mode and thinking OMG WHAT DID I JUST DO. I have come to terms with my decision and am so proud to walk away from something that wasn’t making me happy. Building, launching, and developing Meowtel is incredibly gratifying. I’m in charge, I’m surrounded by a team of best friends and family who help with the work and decision-making processes, and I have the flexibility I want. Of course I’m making less – I just bootstrapped a website dev project out of my own pocket. Not sure when my next paycheck will be, hence why I’m putting every ounce of energy into Meowtel and why I did an Indiegogo campaign.

How do you/the company you worked for feel about the ads targeted at the youth that we need to stop smoking and that “this is the generation to end it all”? Do you think this is plausible?

I’ll only share my opinion which is I would be so proud if it’s our generation that stops smoking. Big tobacco has the cash and the resources to be able to adapt to the changing times. If it’s not cigarettes they’re selling, it will be Gadget X or Consumer Product Y. In terms of plausibility, I don’t think it will happen unless there is a new CPG good that people can do while bored (you could argue mobile phones are already doing this) but it needs to be something they can taste. I don’t even want to throw out a timeline of when it will be plausible because until humans stop being cattle, it’ll be an uphill battle.

What type of dog would you own if you weren’t a cat lady?

Is this cliche? A golden retriever. I had one growing up (Nipper) and she was the sweetest. She’s in a nice wooden box too in my mom’s house <3

On a scale of 1 to kim Jong un… how evil is the big tobacco industry? Also, will you please share your favorite cat meme from reddit? Meow

Oof, well, I’m biased having worked in the industry but I think the best way to put it is some of the companies in big tobacco are a 1-10 and then others fall in the Putin-Kim Jong Un range. Just depends on how they manage their business, their employees, and maybe most importantly of all, how they handle their PR. Favorite cat meme….HMMM. Let me get back to you on that one. There are too many.

6 figures can be as low as 100,000 right? Was it worth it?

Anything less is 5 figures 🙂 It was worth it in the sense that I became financially stable at such an early age and I learned a tremendous amount. Without my experience there, I wouldn’t be able to go off the beaten path and pursue Meowtel.

What was the culture of the company like? How did people justify the fact that their profits were inversely correlated with the life expectancy of consumers?

I really like this question because it brings up a point that many of us just don’t think about…hardly ever. Now granted, I worked on the sales side so I didn’t do 5- & 10-year strategy mapping from a big picture level with consumer dynamics such as life expectancy coming into play, so unfortunately, my peers and I didn’t touch this topic. Out of sight, out of mind. But overall, the culture will be contingent upon what function you work in. In sales, we are all highly energetic, outgoing people who love to have a good time. Thus, at every meeting and even just walking down the halls, you could have terrific activities or a great chat with a peer. For how “Corporate America” big tobacco is, the culture has come a long way.

What is your take on the vaping industry? Your interpretation of Big Tobacco’s stance? What impacts do you forsee?

Vaping fascinates me; it appeared out of nowhere and now everywhere you go, there are full blown vape shops where you can sample different flavors and learn all about the experience. I think it will continue to grow over the next decade and personally, I think it would be great to see vapor overtake traditional cigarettes. Big tobacco sees vapor as another revenue stream so they definitely want to partake. How the FDA chooses to regulate vapor is the big unknown out there right now as well as how states and even more local bodies of government will choose to tax the category. It’ll also be interesting to see which vapor brands will dominate the market since there’s so much volatility with how consumers are trying the products.

What charities, if any, are you supportive of?

I support Surfrider Foundation, the Orangutan Foundation, and via Meowtel, I’m able to support Best Friends Animal Society. With that being said, I’m looking to get much more heavily involved in surf/beach/ocean causes and then continue animal shelter work through Meowtel. If you know of any causes that are up my alley, please let me know!

Is big tobacco scared of the rate and success of the legalization of marijuana? Are they doing everything in their power to try and combat the legalization? Would they possibly look at cornering that lucrative market and creating some sort of standard like with cigarettes?

Big tobacco already has the infrastructure to manufacture, market, sell, and distribute such a product so we’ll see what they choose to do with it. Any smart company with that type of infrastructure would probably jump on it, but who knows!

How did you get the job with Altria? What prompted you to leave and start your own company?

I got the job through completing their summer internship my junior year of college at UC Berkeley. My plan was to go back to school but then when Miss Lily (my cat of 17 years) died in January, I wanted nothing more than a “cat share” type of website to take care of temporary kitties. That was when Meowtel was born. Between finding something I’m that passionate about and getting into grad school, I had found my out that I had wanted for some time. It was time for a change…especially an industry change.

Why cats?

Cats make people wildly happy, including myself, and despite their enormous popularity on the internet, they’re underrepresented from a service provider aspect.

A cat hotel? What is your demographics mainly? Crazy white women?

Meowtel is a cat boarding & cat sitting marketplace. It connects cat sitters with cat owners so they don’t have to worry about the hassle of caging their cat in a kennel while they’re away. Example demographic 1 Example demographic 2

Which country mandates the grossest warning labels on cigarettes?

Great question. I was only involved with domestic operations but based on my own travels, Singapore is pretty gruesome.

Do you support that sort of labelling in the U.S.? Not that I imagine it changes many peoples minds but it is good to remind people when they’re buying a pack. The text label we have is pretty easy to ignore.

It is pretty easy to ignore. My initial answer would be to do the gruesome labeling. But then when I step back and think how heavily taxed tobacco is, and how much federal and state funding that provides, I ask: what would the government have to tax next if tobacco sales were minuscule? Double-edged sword either way it’s played and there’s no good answer. But I definitely believe everyone should be exposed to the gruesome reality of what tobacco use can do to you.

When you were working for big tobacco, how did people react when you told them where you worked?

There was always an initial shock and they thought I’d be joking. The next question, without fail, was always, “well, do you smoke?” And the answer to that is no. Then the third question was “well, how do you work for big tobacco if you don’t smoke?”

I’m guessing you faced some inner and outer challenges with your decision. What are some ways you stayed focused and motivated?

It was a strange coincidence to undergo a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training from December – August (I graduated on Sunday). The spiritual principles that were taught to me, along with the asanas, helped me stay focused and aware of what I really want to do in life. Surrounding myself with a good group of highly supportive friends was definitely a plus. They would make sure I was on track and I could share my small wins with them to keep myself motivated along the way.

I think meowtel is a great idea! But I’m curious, did you consult with veterinarians before or during launch of the company? There are an enormous amount of stealthy communicable diseases that cats could pickup using this service that would not show up till 5-6 months after the owner got the kitty back. How do you plan to handle situations like this?

So glad you mentioned this! I didn’t get to consult with vets but that’s why we are still in Beta – we need feedback from all of our stakeholders to make it the best product it can be.

Based on initial feedback, it sounds like most of the cat sitting will occur in the cat’s home – the cat won’t be traveling to the host’s home. I’d love to talk more on this though.

What are your opinions on electronic cigarettes/vapes and the way that tobacco companies are trying to villify them with ads such as “You don’t know what’s in e-juice?”

You could probably go to any retail outlet that sells a form of vape juice, ask them where it was produced and what kind of quality assurance the production facility had in place, and the retailer wouldn’t be able to tell you. There may not even be a customer satisfaction number on the vape juice container (I’ve never bought any so I’m unsure of what’s on the packaging). Big tobacco probably isn’t worried about the local guys producing the juice in their garages but what they do want to minimize are the medium-sized, regional vapor brands that could disrupt their share of the market either now or down the line.

How did you arrive at the name Meowtel? It sounds like it has a story. And have you adopted any permanent kitty roommates?

I hate to say it, but I don’t remember how Meowtel came to me! I was trying to play around with different cat-related words and the “hotel” theme. Meowtel came to mind and the domain was available, so I bought it right then and there (wish I had a better story). I have not adopted any kitty roommates because I’m moving soon, thus, Meowtel is perfect for me because I can sit/host kitties when I have time!

How do you manage competition between hosts when they live in close proximity? I would be afraid that a host could apply for a google maps listing and act as an independent franchise operating outside of your website.

More than valid concern but Meowtel’s goal is to offer a terrific community experience, especially by profit sharing with shelters. We hope that this will be incentive enough to keep happy cat lovers coming back to the site.

Do tobacco employees get a discount?

No discounts. However, in the corporate office, there’s usually product around and you’re able to use it if you choose.

Were people allowed to smoke at work?

Yes. People who had offices (as opposed to cubes) can smoke in them and there are designated smoking places throughout the interior of the office. It was pretty weird adjusting to that and not very conducive to enjoying your lunch.

Do you have a boy/girlfriend and what do they think about all the cats/your sanity?

Between applying to grad school and launching Meowtel, I’ve been too busy to date, so no boyfriends over here. I love all the cats. My sanity is holding up strong 98% of the time.

Do you intend to do this moving forward, considering the significant amount of transferable diseases among felines. While I think the idea is interesting, why would I choose over boarding at a Veterinary clinic where if something happened, I can feel comfortable knowing there’s a board certified DVM available to diagnose and safely stabilize/protect/repair my cat?

Yes, of course, I want to be able to talk to all parties before Meowtel comes out of Beta. I’m glad you asked that question and from my perspective, there’s several reasons you would choose Meowtel: your cat doesn’t have to be caged for the entirety of its stay, many of our hosts are experienced cat/pet caregivers, if not vet techs, and by using Meowtel, your provide more financial incentives to shelters via our Shelter Incentive Program. I’d love to hear your ideas though on how to tackle the vet side to ensure quality care, if its needed, when guests book with Meowtel.

Do cats have any “social protocols” when it comes to socializing with strangers? How do cats react to each other in a group where they don’t know each other well? Are there any power struggles?

This is a great question, I flat out don’t know. I’ve only dealt with single kitties. If there are any shelter employees/volunteers or vets, can you help us out with this one?

Where are you based out of?

The startup was born and raised in Richmond, VA. It’ll be moving to Southern CA soon.

Did you ever receive any negative attention when you revealed you worked for a big tobacco company?

Yes, and where you live will greatly influence people’s responses. When I was on the west coast, sharing who I worked for was met with confusion and at times, hostility. I was even harassed a few times at college campus recruiting events. Totally different story living in the mid-Atlantic: working for tobacco is respected because of how ingrained the industry is in the communities of VA and NC.

It was a ballsy move to quit such a lucrative job. What was the process behind your thinking to quit? Did you develop a timeline? What has your response from shelters been so far?

In January, I realized that all I want to do in life is inspire others. It’s so gratifying. I didn’t know what that would look like but in pursuing that intention, it has resulted in: quitting my job to start a company and going to grad school next year. Both of which have inspired those around me. I knew I wanted to take a new path for about a year at that point and I always thought it would be just grad school. When my kitty of 17 years passed away, I wanted a “cat share” and Meowtel was born and I haven’t looked back. It kind of all fell into place. I implemented a timeline for GMAT studying, taking the exam, applying to schools, etc. and then when Meowtel happened, I put together a motley timeline of when I would ideally want the site launched. I probably could have planned better so I had more savings but asi es la vida.

The response from shelters has been phenomenal. I’ve been working with the Richmond SPCA to get them up and running on the platform and they think the concept is great. Other shelters have requested that there is an API integration between Meowtel and the animal listing databases they use which we’re working on so that it’s part of Version 2.

What are some of your favorite hobbies?

Hobbies! I love surfing, swimming, yoga, pole dancing, drinking lots of IPAs, playing violin/viola, seeing live music, making up weird inside jokes with my best friends, traveling, and anything kitty-related.