Nicola Mendelsohn’s son was nine when he came home from school rather perplexed. “Mum,” said Zac, who is now 14. “Something really unusual happened today.
I found out that one of my friend’s mums doesn’t work!” Nicola Mendelsohn – a Lady, a CBE, and ‘the most powerful British woman in the tech industry’ (Daily Telegraph) – burst out laughing. “It was a proud moment for me,” she recalls.
If there is a definition of a wonder woman, Nicola, 49, comes close. As well as her extraordinary career – Facebook’s vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, non-executive director at Diageo and co-president with her husband Jonathan of Jewish charity Norwood – she is also a mother of four children aged between 14 and 22. All this as well as living with a slow-moving but still incurable cancer called follicular lymphoma (more on this below.)
But first, Nicola has an issue with the wonder woman tag. “When a woman achieves something new or prominent in arts, business or education, it’s seen as a rare celestial event,” she says. “We are nowhere near parity with men, there is still an ‘unconscious bias’. I hate the question: ‘can you have it all?’ Because it sets you up for failure, and implies you have to choose. But on the other hand, however, I’m very happy to be called a wonder woman if it means that young women will see role models, that a girl can do special things.”
Nicola’s role model was her indomitable mother Celia Clyne, who ran a catering company with her father Barry (brother Mark still runs the firm). “This taught me it was ‘normal’ to have a mum who went out to work,” she says. “My grandma Hilda ran a fabric stall on the Arndale market in Manchester with my grandpa Asher. They worked hard, they supported each other, and they taught me that family came first. The two things can go together.”
An alumnus of Manchester High School for Girls and Leeds University, Nicola is not impressed by questions about her work-life balance. “Most people ask how I do it,” she says. “But no one – to this day – has ever asked my husband how he has managed to balance his career and four children.” (Nicola’s husband Jonathan is Baron Mendelsohn of Finchley, partner in a corporate finance boutique and member of the House of Lords).
A bit more on her awesome achievements: Nicola started out in advertising, rising high in the top agencies Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Grey London and Karmarama, where she was partner and executive chairman. During this time, she became industry chair of the UK Creative Industries Council, and the first female president of the IPA, the advertising trade industry body. At one point she also was the director of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
So come on, surely she must have some secrets-of-success tricks she can share? “People tell me I am incredibly organised,” she says. “I’m not afraid to ask for help, and am lucky to have support at home. But I always put my family first. I never miss a sports day, a parents’ evening, and I try to make all the children’s football matches.”
But is she on her mobile at all hours of the night, especially with a boss in California? “I have a rule: all phones must be left in the hall, not by the bed,” she says. “Though I have to admit, my kids are better at this than I am.”
Nicola has one non-negotiable, however: Shabbat. “I have always kept the Sabbath,” she says. “It’s restorative, quiet time, with absolutely no technology. I make Friday night dinner, and go to shul regularly on Saturdays.” She’s keen to emphasise her company’s family friendly policies.
“Take this conference call right now,” she says. “I am at home, you are in your study, my communications officer is at head office. Technology is an enabler. Remember those days when people left their coats on the back of their chairs to prove they were are still at work? Thankfully, it’s a thing of the past. At Facebook, people start work later if they have to, or finish earlier if they need to. We have a parents’ room and a meditation room. Women get six months’ maternity leave on full pay and men get four.
I had to ask one of our male leaders recently to take his full paternity leave, to set an example to other fathers in the company.”
Having worked four days a week for 16 years, Nicola is now full-time. “‘I decided to go back seven years ago, when my youngest started school,” she says. “This doesn’t work for every family, but it works for us.” The only thing she seems to compromise on is her travel, now flying the night before a meeting, instead of early that morning. But this is not because of her family, but because of a serious health condition.
In November 2016, Nicola was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, a little-known blood cancer, after finding a lump in her groin. About 2,000 people a year are diagnosed with the disease, with 65 as the average age. Sixty percent of people with all lymphomas (there are several different strains) live for more than a decade.
Nicola has a slow-moving form of the condition, which she has previously described as “a life sentence”. However, follicular lymphoma is currently incurable. This month, she presided over the launch of the Follicular Lymphoma Foundation. Its aim? “For the Foundation not to have to exist. We are looking for a cure. We want to help people to live well with the disease, and to get well.” The Foundation aims to raise money, and boasts a website (theflf.org) through which people can donate money, and patients can get information and support. It will be run by a director, a scientific adviser and trustees.
Until last year, Nicola’s doctors had advised a ‘watch and wait’ strategy. But in June 2018, she embarked on a course of chemotherapy and immunotherapy because she had tumours growing around her kidneys; left untreated, they could have led to kidney failure. The treatment was a success. Has her health affected her either as a boss, wife or mother? “I hope not,” she says. “The cancer itself has never made me feel ill, and while chemo is never pleasant, it didn’t hit me that hard. Apart from the days of my treatments, I never took any time off work. My company offered sick leave, but I preferred not to take it,” says Nicola. “That worked for me – which is not to say it’s right for everyone.” She now has ‘top up’ immunotherapy treatments every eight weeks.
Now officially in remission, Nicola says she is “feeling good”. But for now, she has to dash. She has chicken soup to cook in her kosher kitchen (the family secret is turkey neck in the pan, apparently) for husband Jonathan, and Gabi, 22, Danny, 20, Sam, 17, and Zac – who was once so baffled when mothers didn’t work.
“I’m lucky to be in remission, but it’s from a cancer that is still incurable,” she says. “I could live 20 years, or my illness could transform at any time. Which is why I’m grateful to live every day to its fullest. I feel blessed.”