“My hero parents taught me that the good times should always be a time for celebration,” says Facebook’s Mendelsohn
“From December 4, 2020, edition of the Jewish Telegraph)
SOME would argue that, despite her extremely high profile, Nicola Mendelsohn’s mother is more famous than she is.
For the 49-year-old, who is Facebook’s vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is the daughter of renowned kosher caterers Celia and Barry Clyne.
That sentiment is not lost on Nicola, as she has stated that her mother is her biggest hero.
She told me: “I’m very close to my mum and when I was growing up, I didn’t realise how unusual it was having a mum and a grandma who both worked — but that was my normal.
“Just from growing up and hearing the stories of who mum and dad were catering for, from presidents and prime ministers to pop stars, it was just pretty normal.
“One of the greatest gifts they gave me is learning that people are just people, and not to be scared or intimidated by people — just do your best job.
“The biggest lesson they probably taught me is to celebrate the good times.
“There are often bad times that go on in your life, such as how my father had lost both of his parents very young, and actually where you have moments to make parties, then you should celebrate.
“Now, you might say to me, that of course they’re going to say that, they’re kosher caterers, but I think it was in their DNA anyway.”
Nicola was born and raised in the north Manchester suburb of Prestwich, with brothers Mark, who is also in the family catering business, and Adam, former chief operating officer of Lad Bible.
She was a member of Bnai Brith Youth Organisation and attended King David Primary School, Manchester High School for Girls and Stand College, before reading English and theatre studies at Leeds University.
But food has always been a constant theme.
For the record, her favourite meal, cooked by her mother, is the classic Celia Clyne Friday night dinner.
She recalled: “Before they had the catering business, mum was a teacher, and used to give cookery lessons from home.
“So there would be 20 or 30 women sitting around, having an evening learning from my mum’s cookery demonstrations, and I would help. It was just our normal.
“We were always entertaining, as they liked the house to be filled with lots of people and we were encouraged to have our friends around.
“So for me and my brothers, we would always be the house that people would come to and mum would always be cooking.
“There was always food, and there still is always food, everywhere for everyone.”
Throughout her upbringing, Nicola describes her parents as “very supportive” and the family “very strong”.
That family unit also included her mum’s parents, Hilda and Asher Seddon — she never met her father’s father, but did meet her grandmother, who also died when Nicola was young.
“It was a very loving, supportive house with Judaism at the heart,” she said.
She attended both Holy Law and Higher Prestwich synagogues, too.
A key moment in Nicola’s formative years was joining BBYO.
Her era produced many famous names, including current Transport Minister Grant Shapps MP, BBC Panorama executive producer Lucie Kon, BAFTA Award winning television producer Nicola Shindler, chairman of the Rugby Football League Simon Johnson, film and television music composer Murray Gold, philanthropist Mark Weingard, lawyer Mark Lewis and Jewish Telegraph deputy editor Mike Cohen.
“It was an incredibly special, important and formative time in my youth,” she recalled.
“The mantra at the time was that it was for the youth, by the youth and we learned so much about leadership.
“We actually had leadership programming; that’s what we gave to each other. You were learning from it and from your peers around you.
“When I think back from a business perspective now, that’s the thing that’s most important, who you learn from.
“So to learn from someone who’s one or two years older than you but can talk to you in a way that is really easy to understand, it was incredibly important.
“I remember, aged just 16, organising the Whitefield weekend where there were hundreds of kids from all over the country to celebrate BBYO Whitefield and that’s a pretty big logistical undertaking — where you put the people, where you feed the people, how you create the activities.
“It was also important from a social values perspective, as it was about what are the things that matter.
“We would go down to Heathlands Village (care home) on a Sunday, and do different activities, or campaign to get people released from Soviet Russia.
“BBYO was where I honed both my leadership perspective, social values perspective, and the importance of organisation.”
Nicola, who has four children with husband Lord (Jon) Mendelsohn — former business and international trade spokesman for the Labour Party in the House of Lords — calls upon the lessons she learned at BBYO on a regular basis at Facebook.
This is not hard to believe, when she points out that the BBYO teachings are part of her DNA.
“Being curious and asking questions are both very much a part of what makes me who I am,” she said.
Another place key to shaping the person she is today is Leeds University, where she was head of the Students’ Union, as well as being involved with the National Union of Students anti-racism committee on a national level.
And Nicola, once again, found herself organising large events, as she headed up the team which organised a national ball for 1,000 people in Leeds.
Nicola’s Judaism is key to everything she does.
So key, in fact, that she decided against pursuing a career in performing arts because she would have been unable to keep Shabbat.
She said: “I thought about it, and I did actually have a place at drama school, but the dawning realisation that if you wanted to be successful in theatre, it’s probably not going to work out if you’re not going to be prepared to work on a Friday and Saturday.
“And I also saw that too much of it was just about luck.
“And I was lucky that I have a friend from my neighbourhood from growing up in Manchester, who lived up the road, a guy called Neil Marcus, who had got a job in advertising and a year older, and I just thought it sounded brilliant, you could do a job like that, and that’s what took me in that direction.”
Starting her career in advertising at Bartle Bogle Hegarty in London in 1992 , she rose to business development director before leaving to join Grey London as its deputy chairman in 2004.
Four years later, she left to join then independent agency Karmarama, as partner and executive chairman, a position she held for five years before leaving to join Facebook, where she now finds herself in one of the top positions.
The advertising industry can, at times, be competitive. But, Nicola said, she loved it as it brought together both her business and creative sides.
She explained: “It was always at the forefront of what was new from a technology and a communications perspective, and that will always continue.”
Nicola joined Facebook in June, 2013.
The social media company she joined then was very different from the mega-technology giant she now works for.
Back in 2013, the UK arm employed only 200 staff — by the end of this year, it will have around 4,000 employees.
She recalled: “When I joined, we had just acquired Instagram, but it was small, and now we have a whole family of apps and services — Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp Messenger and Oculus.
“It has evolved, and it has got a lot bigger, but the culture, you know, is really very similar.
“And as much as we’re a tech company, and we like to be able to move fast, it’s a very open culture, where people can really bring their true authentic selves to the company.
“At the heart is also the fact that we’re giving back to the world, and how we’re creating a positive social impact.
“So those things haven’t gone, and they’ve been the things that have been very consistent the whole way through.
“But yes, as a company, it has grown considerably, and many more people are using our platforms as a result over the last seven years.”
Like most of Nicola’s previous life stages, the company (or youth movement) with which she is involved has helped to shape her as a person.
And her role at Facebook is no different.
Something she had to learn was about looking at how the three regions she represents — Europe, Middle East and Africa — think, which are all very different.
Throw in the fact she works for an American company, and it’s an entirely new ball game.
She said: “It’s definitely given me a broader perspective on the world, looking after Europe, Middle East and Africa, and the range of issues that we that we have to deal with.
“I was mainly used to dealing, in the past, with the European perspective.
“But now I do work for an American company, and so I have the American dimension, but also looking after the Middle East and Africa gives me, again, a different perspective.
“I have a very strong team that I work with, and I think it comes from being very clear about what your roles and responsibilities are and whose actions are being accounted for.
“There have been a number of different challenges.”
It was at this point that Nicola and I discuss the elephant in the ‘virtual’ room — online hate speech.
We were speaking just a few days before Facebook’s quarterly report which detailed new information about hate speech prevalence.
According to technology website The Verge, the company estimates that 0.10 to 0.11 per cent of what Facebook users see violates hate speech rules, equating to 10 to 11 views of hate speech for every 10,000 views of content. based on a random sample of posts which measures the reach of content rather than pure post count.
Facebook has always insisted that it removes most hate speech proactively before users report it, and says that over the past three months, around 95 per cent of Facebook and Instagram hate speech take-downs were “proactive”.
This was also just a few weeks after Facebook had banned all Holocaust denial content from its platform.
Nicola explained: “One of the hardest things that we’ve probably had to deal with is some of the issues around hate speech that have come on the platform, and some of the challenges around that.
“It’s ongoing work in terms of what to do in order to get it off.
“There is a misconception somehow that Facebook wants that sort of thing on the platform, or that we make money from it. That is just not true. We don’t want it here.
“We’ve created community standard guidelines around what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable around the platform that our moderators can then actually decide on.
“So for the issue on the Holocaust denial, we do not allow any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust, but what we’re actually moving towards, more than that, is actually giving people the access to education and the right resources, because that’s also crucial in how we tackle this problem.
“Later this year, anybody who searches for any terms that are associated with the Holocaust, or its denial, will be directed to credible information from Facebook.
“Alongside this, we’ve also worked to ban antisemitic stereotypes around things like the collective power of Jews, all sorts of tropes that depict Jews as running the world or major institutions, and we’ve also banned more than 250 white supremacist organisations.
“I am proud of the work that we are doing in terms of getting it off our platform — we absolutely have zero tolerance for it.”
Facebook has also been consulting with experts such as CST and the Antisemitism Policy Trust about how to deal with the issues.
A team of more than 35,000 people is employed just to work on the human moderation perspective of the company.
“We’re going to keep working to get it off our platforms, but I think it gives you an indication of the scale and the size of the issue we’re dealing with.”
On antisemitism specifically, she said: “This can be a challenge. But to be very clear, there is no form of any type of antisemitism, or any type of hate speech or anything that can cause harm allowed.
“But there is free speech, and there is the ability for people to be able to be critical of a country in the way that people might be critical of the UK or the government or things like that.
“And that’s where you have the challenges to what people believe versus what the majority would think is or isn’t.
“But I think we’re very clear on antisemitism, we’re very clear on racism and we’re very clear on Holocaust denial — there is no place for it on our platform.”
New UK legislation, the Online Harms Bill, is due to be ready early next year.
At the core of the bill would be a statutory duty of care for internet companies, and the implementation of an independent regulator who would oversee and enforce compliance with the duty.
This could also see companies such as Facebook being made responsible for everything posted on the site.
“We’re working with governments, not just in the UK, but around the world as well,” she said. We think it’s important that there is more regulation around different areas to do with social media.
“It’s something that [Facebook’s founder and chief executive officer] Mark Zuckerberg has talked about. We’re still a new way of communicating and a new industry, as well.
“We’ll continue to see the progress as it goes through the House, but we do work with governments on this area
“But what we call for, what we want, is sensible legislation that can actually be achieved and actually be able to be to be done.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, many of the older generation have relied on Facebook for communicating with those who they are unable to see.
And that is something of which Nicola is acutely aware.
For she has been isolating in her north-west London home since the start of lockdown due to her follicular lymphoma — a form of low-grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or incurable blood cancer — which sees her classed as clinically vulnerable. She was diagnosed in 2016.
“I’m a member of one Facebook group in north-west London,” she said.
“It was set up to help people who are maybe elderly or vulnerable, to do the shopping or to pick up prescriptions etc.
“And I think we saw a whole re-emergence of that sense of community, and groups on Facebook are a really important part of that, which is a way to find interests, passions, hobbies or local activities that you might be interested in.
“I didn’t realise that there’s probably a group for every type of illness that’s out there, as well as every type of activity.”
Nicola set up the Follicular Lymphoma Foundation in 2019. It is the world’s first charity to set out to find a cure for the cancer.
She said :”The scientists tell me curing it should be possible. We did not expect the year that we’ve just had, and all our fundraising events were cancelled.
“So we’ve been using that time thoughtfully, strategically to work with and to create the boards in the UK and America to bring together the world’s experts, researchers, the best in class from biotech, to actually go out and see what the pathway to a cure looks like.”
Away from her work, Judaism is key to her world. She describes herself as having a “strong faith”, which gives her an “incredible” framework for living.
“It puts family at the centre, and that creates moments of joy and moments of coming together,” she said with a smile.
“In this world, in particular, if we didn’t have Shabbat to break the weeks up, I think it would have felt very different.
“Faith is one of the things that will certainly have helped me to get through this period.”
And something else which has helped Nicola get through this period, nay life, is the Jewish Telegraph.
Speaking during the paper’s 70th anniversary week, she recalled how it’s a key fixture in the Clyne and Mendelsohn households.
She laughed: “There was always that moment waiting for the paper to come in to find out — depending on your age — the births, the marriages and the death section.
“Being at home in Manchester, in those formative years, the engagements section and seeing who got married and the photographs, that’s the important things and important moments in people’s lives.
“I think the Jewish Telegraph was always a very important part of my family. I can’t remember growing up without it being around.”
For more information on the Follicular Lymphoma Foundation, visit theflf.org