Emily Hikade from CIA agent to CEO
December 9, 2022
Emily Hikade graduated from the University of Notre Dame, where she studied international relations, French and German. Upon graduation, she worked briefly at the White House before launching into a career with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Emily spent fifteen years as an operations officer in the Clandestine Service. Serving mostly in austere conditions, Emily was on the frontlines of Human Intelligence (HUMINT) collection overseas in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Emily speaks English, French, German and Arabic. While traveling in a plane that almost crashed while on a mission, Emily made the decision to seek out a significant career change. In 2015, Emily launched Petite Plume, a luxury sleepwear company. The company grew rapidly and in 2021 it was identified by Vogue and Forbes as the best luxury sleepwear for the whole family. Vanity Fair magazine credited Petite Plume with creating the very best pajamas and robes on the market. Emily has trained in Krav Maga and Muay Thai Kickboxing, skills which she has used minimally since starting her sleepwear company.

A lot has been written about this but you worked at the CIA before launching your brand. Can you give us the highlight on how your CIA job prepared you to make pajamas?

Working in the Agency means thinking quickly on your feet and being ready for whatever is thrown your way. You must improvise but always keep your objective in focus. To that end, it was excellent preparation for launching Petite Plume. Additionally, I would offer that relationships are a critical part of almost any job and especially so at the Agency where you must overcome challenges, protect yourself and your colleagues and mitigate risks. Wine has also helped. Whether navigating the dangers of a war-zone or guiding a company through a pandemic, a nice glass of white wine has been a rewarding and sometimes essential end to the day.

What originally drew you to a role at the CIA?

I was motivated to join the Agency because I wanted to make an impact with my life. I am also lucky to be gifted in languages and I’ve always loved to explore other cultures – the further from the beaten path, the better! When 9/11 happened, it changed everything. The world I knew growing up at the tail end of the Cold War was flipped upside down. The main objective of the Agency was to protect the U.S. from further attacks. I was ready.

Did your motivations to work there change over time and how did you begin to navigate the complex decision of changing careers? Were there any tools or books that were specifically useful?

During my time with the Agency, I worked in some of the most austere locations in the world. Initially it was thrilling to be making such an impact, meeting with the sorts of people you can imagine an Agency officer would be meeting. I lived in dangerous places and even when I didn’t, I still traveled extensively, year-after-year, even after starting a family. Then in 2013, I was on a mission to meet someone at a location in the middle of the Indian Ocean when my plane went out of control and started careening toward the water. I had three little boys at the time and the youngest wasn’t even a year old. All I could see was their little faces and it broke my heart that they were going to grow up without a mom. That was a very profound moment in my life and it incited me to launch Petite Plume.

The first books I read were “The Mom Inventors Handbook” by Tamara Monosoff, which took me step-by-step from concept to a product launch and then “Million Dollar Women”, by Julia Pimsleur, which dealt with raising capital, mentorship and so much more. I have to chuckle when I think of the crazy places where I was reading these books. The copies are well-loved with highlights, shirred pages and exclamation points for the badass quotes.

After making such a big leap, I’m sure you learned a lot about career switching. What has stood out to you as important lessons that others may connect to?

One important lesson is that there is never the right time to launch a company or make a major life change. When I launched Petite Plume, I had a full-time job and three kids. There were a million reasons NOT to launch it.

But we get one shot at life, and we owe it to ourselves to make the most of it, so at the end when we cross the finish line, we know we’ve left nothing on the table.

Petite Plume has a real cult status among celebrities. How were you able to cultivate this and what might others learn from your success?

We launched Petite Plume in 2015 as a luxury children’s sleepwear company. At the time, it was difficult to find these classic pajamas and nightgowns in timeless patterns. We managed to get a small cult following quickly. The explosion of the social media landscape worked in our favor: who doesn’t love to take photos of their children looking adorable? Initially I had no idea what Instagram even was, but it has proven to be our most powerful tool in part thanks to the authenticity of customer-generated photos and their enthusiastic reviews.

In a stroke of luck, Prince George was wearing our pajamas in 2016 when he met then-President Obama in the iconic photo from Buckingham Palace. It was fortuitous and we had no idea it was coming.

What might others learn from my success? As with any company, there are a lot of euphoric highs and devastating lows, sometimes on the same day. Resilience is key.

Everyone falls down, but picking yourself back up and moving forward breeds momentum.

As the D2C market shifts, how are you preparing for the future?

Our team works hard to stay apprised of changes in the landscape. Consumers are more empowered than ever before to find precisely what they are looking for, compare prices and products – all from the comfort of their living room sofa. As the landscape becomes more and more competitive, Petite Plume will continue to charm our customers with our high quality products, and create an online home for our cozy little world to welcome customers back over and over again. This, plus exceptional customer service, feels like the best roadmap forward.

Who are other women you admire right now?

Having lived in the Middle East, Asia and Africa for a significant amount of time, I saw so many exceptional women and mothers who fought on a daily basis against broken systems, failing infrastructure and inequalities, yet persevered in raising wonderful families and doing meaningful work in their communities. Resilience and grit are found all in every corner of the world.

I also admire Tory Burch and Sara Blakely. Both women have blazed trails while creating remarkable empires, but what I admire the most is they have both given back and created foundations to provide more opportunities for those who will follow. Women have made great strides and now have a seat at the table, but we still have a long way to go.

What’s one tool you cannot live without?

As we plunge into winter in Chicago, one tool I cannot live without is my ice scraper! One needs to see out the windshield!

What’s one trend or idea that excites you as we head into 2023?

Our company culture excites me! In our largely woman-led company, we’re creating a work family that supports one another while we achieve. Insofar as trends are concerned, while I’m happy to see the cropped top head off into the sunset, I’m not ready for the low cut jeans again. They weren’t gone long enough.



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