Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, Sabeena Hickman was never given any reason to doubt her ability to succeed in any field, regardless of anyone else’s expectations. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, she had already witnessed her mother break down more cultural barriers than she would ever have to face, even as president and CEO of the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance, the world’s largest and most established swimming pool and hot tub association.
While the pool and spa industry, like many others, is still very much a boys’ club, Hickman says the attitudes in India, when her mother was growing up, were even more patriarchal. In fact, as recently as 2019 the database management company Prime Database found that, out of 100 CEOs and managing directors listed in India’s national stock exchange, only about three were women.
“[My parents] had the traditional arranged marriage,” Hickman says. “And when you think of the Indian culture, you think of the male and the subservient wife, the homemaker.”
Regardless of cultural pressures, Hickman’s mother earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees, then after moving to the United States and starting a family, pursued a career as a librarian.
There was never any question as to the value of a good work ethic growing up. After graduating from Virginia Tech, Hickman quickly found herself drawn to association work, where she rose quickly, becoming CEO for the National Association of Landscape Professionals; she would work there for nearly 12 years. In 2019, a colleague informed Hickman that the PHTA needed new leadership, after having just finalized a massive merger of two previously contentious associations: the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals and the National Swimming Pool Foundation.
The challenge intrigued Hickman, who notes she has always enjoyed uniting different groups and cultures, feeling that when done right, the combined strengths of both can emerge. Since taking over, Hickman has fallen in love with the pool and spa industry, mainly thanks to the relationships she has developed with some of PHTA’s 3,600 members.
“I love the members,” Hickman says. “We’re working for an industry where the members really appreciate and value the work that the organization does, and they’re so heavily engaged in their trade,” Hickman says. “The amount of volunteer time and talent that they give to this organization — it’s incredible. They make it fun.”
Her passion for growth and improvements among the organization’s members make her optimistic about the future of inclusiveness and diversity in the industry. A mother to two sons, 18 and 21, Hickman says the more that women are seen in leadership, the more the next generation will recognize it as normal.
“Hopefully, I’ve left an impression on them,” Hickman says. “I’ll always be ‘mom’ to them, but when they see me in my work mode, they’re like, ‘Mom, how did you do that?’ ”