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How Facebooks boss Charlotte Edwardes is facing up to cancer... and the social media giant's year from hell

Nicola Mendelsohn talks to Charlotte Edwardes about the changes she has made to family life since being diagnosed with follicular lymphoma and why women are the future

Powerful position: Nicola Mendelsohn is Facebook’s top staff member outside the US
Powerful position: Nicola Mendelsohn is Facebook’s top staff member outside the US
Nicola with Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable
Busy life: Nicola with actress Salma Hayek during a talk in London
Fun times: magician Dynamo with Nicola Mendelsohn during the Facebook Creative Talks: Creativity in a Connected World

Nicola Mendelsohn remembers "the beautiful moment" she realised her children thought it was "normal" for her to be a working mum. Her youngest son, Zac, then nine, returned from school, perplexed. "Mum, one of the boys at school's mum doesn't work. How weird is that?" Mendelsohn grins. "I came home that night and just went, 'Yes! Yes'!" She punches the air. "I did something right."

Actually, Mendelsohn, who has four kids, doesn't just work; she is probably the most powerful woman in tech in the UK today. She is head of Facebook in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, the most senior member of staff outside Silicon Valley.

Her pride in being a working mother - she is third generation; both her mother and grandmother ran businesses - has translated into her backing #SheMeansBusiness, a Facebook initiative that has helped boost the kitchen table companies of 13,000 women since its inception in 2016.

Today, she is teaming up with AllBright, an education and networking organisation run by Debbie Wosskow and Anna Jones, to help further promote these fledgling enterprises by giving skills sessions.

But first there is something else about Mendelsohn. In February, she announced she has follicular lymphoma, a type of cancer.

Among the changes she would make, she said, were those to her working week. "I had stopped doing very early-morning flights and went the night before. Given the kids were all older and technology is amazing, I could keep in touch in different ways."

Since starting treatment, "I am in a different place. I'm going to be much more in London now".

Over the next six months, she will have chemo and immunotherapy. "I am doing okay. It's not easy. But I am focusing on getting better. I have an amazing team that can help me work through this.

"It's very different to a month ago to how I am today because I am not physically strong enough to do the things I was doing, and I'm okay with that. I'm lucky to be at a company that is okay with that, too."

Alongside the drugs, she's made her own changes, overhauling her diet, dropping sugar. "I make sure I walk every day. That's really important when you're having chemo. Not power walking, just gentle walking. Just half an hour."

She is also pulling back from other work commitments. She has stepped down from the government's Creative Industries Council, which "I've chaired for the last six years". She stresses in an aside that this was after she did the sector a deal for £150m. She's also stepped down from her role as a judge on the Women's Prize for Fiction.

This means she's around the kids more. Do they help? She laughs. "There's an occasional cup of tea. No, they have been really supportive, really lovely."

To put this personal difficulty into a wider context, Mendelsohn has also been on the frontline of the fallout of Facebook's very public hell this year.

As Facebook grew from revolutionary digital disruptor to global media behemoth, it has faced an onslaught of criticism - from doing too little to help users distinguish fake news from the real thing to negligently providing a platform for terrorists, sexual predators, or Russian insurgents, to doing too little to safeguard personal information - especially after the company admitted the now-defunct digital political campaigning firm Cambridge Analytica had received a haul of private data.

She employs the tactical corporate "we" when talking about Facebook. "It's been a really hard few months," she says, "but it's really showed us the importance of making it clear what Facebook is, what it does, and how seriously we take all the issues around data protection and privacy and election integrity as well."

It has introduced "a significant number of changes", she says, "to, hopefully, reassure people".

"At the heart of everything we do is making sure people are in charge of the information that they have on Facebook. So we have made it easier for people to understand what it is and what is done with it."

She says the company has created "new products", such as "clear history", which means it doesn't hold information on searches you make elsewhere on the internet. "We've made it easier for people to go in and do a privacy check-up and see where it is and to create the controls on what they want to share and what they don't," she says.

Has Facebook owned up to its responsibilities? Does it understand the power it wields in swaying public opinion in a political vote? It does, she says, "definitely". "We've made changes post-2016 and that we continue to evolve in this area demonstrates our commitment and how seriously we take it, for sure."

Among those are checks and verifications on advertisers, but also transparency around political ads. "You can go back to a page and see the ads targeting different audiences in different ways."

It has upped its use of fact checkers, not only employing more specialist companies, but also hiring 20,000 extra staff to do this by the end of this year - "a very significant investment".

She reminds me that the company removed 30,000 "fake pages" during the French elections last year "because we were aware of (the problem), we were looking for it and we could work quickly to make sure those things were taken down".

Compared with everything else that has happened to her this year, the disclosure that her husband, Lord (John) Mendelsohn, attended the Presidents Club Dinner - where the female waitresses said they were sexually harassed - and was asked to "step back" from Labour's front bench, may seem just one of life's smaller trials.

Was it a conversation at home? "Absolutely not. I was proud of the work." She says he was there because she and he were co-presidents of the Jewish charity, Norwood, which was a beneficiary of the money raised. What does she feel about the now-notorious dinner? "I'm not going to comment," she says.

Today, we've met in Facebook's Euston offices, a glass building that gives all the appearance of being transparent. Mendelsohn says "openness" is one of the company's "core principles".

But even the process of getting to the eighth floor is like an episode of Black Mirror, involving the signing of a non-disclosure agreement and a near-nuclear panic when it's realised I am wearing the wrong colour lanyard (I must change to one that warns PRESS PRESS PRESS).

Then there are follow-up phone calls from comms people asking me to drop sections of the interview and demanding to know the headline. Perhaps it's inevitable these tech companies, which start out as pioneering innovators, become, once successful, subsumed by corporate paranoia and bureaucracy.

There are questions about the way our teenagers use social media that I can't get Mendelsohn to engage with. Many use the app long before they are 13. Hers started on their 13th birthdays, she says, so "I can't speak for other kids".

That said, her work encouraging working women is laudable. It was Mendelsohn who approached Wosskow, a fellow member of the Mayor's Business Advisory Board, when she realised that women who were not in a "business community" were far less likely to grow their businesses. "We were always the people changing from heels to flats outside meeting rooms," laughs Wosskow. "She's a professional with a lot of heart. You don't often get someone in such a big role who would work with small businesses like ours."

Wosskow, who founded AllBright members club last year, says the big challenge is to make the UK a better place for working women. In 2016, only 2.17% of capital went to female founders and only one in six people in leadership positions in companies in the UK are women.

Also, many more women say they want to start their own business than do. So AllBright is creating a space where women from different worlds can meet.

Mendelsohn says AllBright will give the 13,000 women already trained "new training". Such is the appetite. "We made a commitment this year to train 50,000 women."

Mendelsohn's mother still works - her parents run a kosher party planning catering company. "It wouldn't have occurred to me that I wouldn't have worked," she says. She can't remember who picked her up from school, "It obviously doesn't matter." The lesson her parents instilled was that "people are people, [it] doesn't matter what their title or position is. And, yes, they did teach me to dream big".

To apply for a place on The AllBright Academy, please visit: allbright

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