Stepping Up

How Leaders Are Rising to the Occasion

Throughout the Small Giants Community and beyond, leaders are doing what’s right when it matters most. These are their stories.



When Nick Watts gave his eight-year-old son a 3D printer for Christmas, he didn’t expect him to do much more than tinker around with it and maybe make a few small toys. When his son used the machine to mass produce dog figurines for a school project, that was impressive enough to justify the purchase.

Fast forward two years later, and a lot has changed. At the height of a global pandemic, Nick found himself with a critical resource sitting in his garage.

While most of us likely don’t have the materials for additive manufacturing lying around the house, it’s no surprise that Nick does. Nick Watts is Chief Design Officer at Hook, a creative production agency for ads and branded content. Hook has a maker-culture: its team members are naturally curious and they love hands-on work. When the COVID-19 crisis began impacting the lives of those around him, Nick’s first instinct was to figure out how he could make something that would help.

“I was hearing from family members and friends who were feeling the panic of not having enough personal protective equipment,” says Nick. “I started researching the 3D printing of face shields and figured out how to replicate the model at home.”

Nick smoothing out face shields

First, he printed and sent face shields to his sister-in-law who works as a nurse in Los Angeles. Then his colleagues at Hook started putting in requests for their family members and friends who were in need. As the number of requests increased, the team agreed that Nick should take Hook’s two 3D printers home and use them to increase his production of face shields.

“After that, we wanted to expand to helping the friends and family members of our team get supplies to their loved ones,” says Nick. “Hook has a real strength for prototyping, testing, and refining. We know how to create something that can be replicated hundreds, or thousands, of times. It was a real blending of values.”

Although Nick had not planned on making thousands of face shields from the makeshift factory in his garage, he quickly found himself on the path to doing so. They shipped face shields to the University of Michigan hospital in Ann Arbor, Detroit Medical Center, Mount Sinai in New York, and to hospitals in Los Angeles, Maryland and Colorado.

“One of our team members sent face shields to a friend who is a doctor in the intensive care unit at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx,” says Nick. “He sent us a letter thanking us and said that the face shields were no doubt the reason he hadn’t gotten sick — they arrived at just the right time.”

Word got out about their efforts, and Nick connected with a local organization in Ann Arbor that shared his mission: Operation Face Shield coordinates volunteers in making and distributing thousands of face shields to those in immediate need.

“We have a people-first culture, and we all stepped in to take on Nick’s work so he could focus on face shield production.”

“Once we teamed up with Operation Face Shield, we were going nonstop,” says Nick. “Hook stepped in to buy two more 3D printers, and I had four machines going at all times. As quickly as we could make them, they were going out.”

Now that they had a partner for large-scale distribution, Nick was not only printing face shields, he was mentoring new volunteers and helping to improve the design and printing process. Pretty soon, he was working 8am to midnight, 7 days a week.

“We believed in what Nick was doing,” says Business Development Director Sara Frey. “We have a people-first culture, and we all stepped in to take on Nick’s work so he could focus on face shield production.”

Both Kids holding boxes

Over the last two months, Hook has helped Operation Face Shield deliver 16,000 face shields to essential workers. Luckily, face shield production by large manufacturers has increased, and corporate donors have started funding the efforts to ensure equipment is readily available to hospitals and medical facilities. Nick has been able to slow down his production and start getting back to work. Even as they return to normal, Hook is still finding ways to help others in every way they can.

“We’re donating the extra 3D printers to the Ann Arbor Arts Center and the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor,” says Nick. “The Neutral Zone is a community center for teenagers that we do a lot of work with. We’re going to teach the kids how to use them. It’s a way for us to promote curiosity and invest in the makers in our community.”

What do these leaders have in common?

These leaders are part of Small Giants companies — companies that prioritize their purpose and culture and invest in their emerging leaders.

One way Small Giants companies invest in their next generation of leaders is by enrolling them in the Small Giants Leadership Academy. This robust one-year certification program consists of virtual learning sessions with expert leaders and coaches, an extensive resource library, on-the-ground meetups with your cohort, a leadership assessment, and your event ticket to two Small Giants gatherings.

Small Giants Community