How Emily Hikade Went From Dipping Ice Cream Cones and Dodging Bullets to Starting a Pajama Brand

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emily hikade office hours

In ELLE.com’s monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between. This month, we spoke to Emily Hikade, who left her career in the CIA to start a pajama brand after a near-death experience on an airplane. I was heading to a high-threat meeting in the Indian Ocean, we started spinning out of control toward the water,” she tells ELLE.com, through tears. “People were screaming and the lights went out…and all I could see were the faces of my three little boys. That moment changed my life.” Fast-forward two years later, while working in East Africa, Hikade launched Petite Plume, a line of luxury sleepwear for men, women, and children. Other than there being a hole in the U.S. market for the product category, she says, There is the concept of home: When youre home and youre in your pajamas, youre safe. Ahead of Petite Plume’s holiday collection drop, Hikade sat down to discuss everything from working in counterterrorism to using the highest quality cotton.

My first job

I worked at this lovely little ice cream place called Dairy Queen in my hometown of Stevens Point, Wisconsin. I was 14 and made $4.25 an hour, but it was amazing. I did everything, including decorating the cakes—I had really good penmanship. My goal was to save up my paychecks so that I could go to France in the summer for an exchange program. It felt really good to be earning my own money.

emily hikade office hours

My worst job

Being shot at. I was stationed in Baghdad with the agency at the time. We were all located out of BGW (Baghdad International Airport), looking for WMDs and Saddam Hussein, and it was really difficult. There were thousands of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the roads, which armored vehicles weren’t able to withstand. I would go to meetings, and there would be apartment buildings on either side where people could either shoot at you or throw grenades. You could die at any second. Then, once you got to the meeting, you faced the threat of even more danger.

Petite Plume Women’s Luxe Pima Cotton Navy Classic Pajama Set

Women’s Luxe Pima Cotton Navy Classic Pajama Set

Petite Plume Women’s Luxe Pima Cotton Navy Classic Pajama Set

How I started working with the CIA

My mom said that when I was a little girl, I used to roam around in the backyard and pretend I spoke a foreign language. I think part of me was really anxious to see the world—and I was desperate to get out of central Wisconsin. I used to ride my bike down to the local library and learn French via cassette before school. At the University of Notre Dame, I became the first and only student to do two different semesters abroad in two different languages. By the time I graduated, I spoke three languages fluently: French, German, and English. Then, I got an offer to work at the White House, and from there, I passed my foreign service exam and began a position at the State Department.
On September 10, 2001, I started learning Russian, then 9/11 happened and I learned Arabic instead. Ultimately, I got the tap on the shoulder to join the agency.

What prompted my career change

I was working in counterterrorism for quite a while. I felt like I was fearless…until I started having kids. Suddenly, I felt very protective of them. A friend of mine died in Afghanistan—she was targeted by a suicide bomber and had three children at home—and that certainly resonated. I found myself in dangerous situations all the time that most Dairy Queen employees don’t find themselves in. Then, in 2013, I was heading to a high-threat meeting in the Indian Ocean, and we started spinning out of control toward the water. People were screaming and the lights went out…and all I could see were the faces of my three little boys. I felt this terrible, profound sense of sadness that my kids were going to grow up without a mom. That moment changed my life. It was the worst things I’ve ever experienced, but also the most pivotal, because even though it’s never a good time to start a business—especially when you have a full-time job, three small kids, and are living in East Africa—every journey starts with a single step. From that moment, I put one foot in front of the other.

emily hikade office hours

Why I started a pajama brand

Initially, I saw a gap in the U.S. market. There were a lot of kids’ pajama brands…so, I figured out how many pajamas I had to sell to replace my government salary. That didn’t sound as daunting at first. And in hindsight, there is the concept of home: When you’re home and you’re in your pajamas, you’re safe. We proudly pioneered a fabric that’s made with highest quality cotton, blended with an inherently flame-retardant fiber—think of a tweaked wool, so it’s chemical-free. Our first samples were made in a factory that literally manufactures fireman uniforms, because we had to be sure. I wanted to make classic sleepwear that was timeless and reminiscent of some of the French brands I love, and without chemicals, because I don’t want my children anywhere near chemicals. We started with kids’, then customers started asking if we would make adult pajamas, because the quality was so good. All of our adult pairs are made of 100 percent cotton, 100 percent silk, and 100 percent Pima.

On feeling empowered

Because I’ve lived in countries where women didn’t have a seat at the table, once I came back to my own country, I was surprised that we still have a ways to go to be truly treated as equals. We’re supposed to be leading the free world, right? I’ve been patted on the head so many times and told, “You make pajamas? That’s cute.” Just the other day, somebody asked if my “little company” was a full-time job. Yet, in my opinion, women can do fucking anything.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Headshot of Claire Stern

Claire Stern is the Digital Director of ELLE.com. Previously, she was Deputy Editor of ELLE.com. Her interests include fashion, food, travel, music, Peloton, and The Hills—not necessarily in that order. She used to have a Harriet the Spy notebook and isn’t ashamed to admit it.

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