'My daughter Gabi says that I am a role model for her, that's what makes me the most proud'
She’s the most powerful woman in UK tech, now Nicola Mendelsohn wants to inspire other female entrepreneurs. Facebook’s boss talks social media addiction and fake news with Rosamund Urwin
Nicola Mendelsohn is telling me about the most important piece of technology in her house - the old-fashioned alarm clock. It stops the Facebook boss, her Labour peer husband Jonathan and their four children (aged 12 to 20) from bringing their phones to bed.
"Otherwise that's the excuse: 'my phone's my alarm!'" the 46-year-old says. "They do have phones and the kit - but we're strict on screen time. We don't let them have phones by the beds. Every night we have a phone amnesty and everyone puts their phones at a charging station in the hall. There's lots of data about it. I believe in limiting the time the kids spend on screens. Read a book! Kick a ball!" Her youngest, Zac, isn't even on Facebook or Instagram. "We're very clear on the rules that you've got to be 13 to join ... Kids need boundaries. They've always needed boundaries."
We're sitting in Facebook's Euston Road office. It's home to all the trappings of tech: the free ice-cream bar; the rooms named in honour of The Lord of the Rings; the open-plan layout to eschew hierarchy (even CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg don't have their own offices).
Although based here, Mendelsohn is only on a flying visit to London. As head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, she is Facebook's most senior employee outside the US, and the most powerful woman in UK tech. Not that she acts like it. She is unstuffy (she once confessed her love for Idris Elba to me) and doesn't do jargon or showboating, though she is analytical ("when you look at the data ..." is her most-uttered phrase). Dressed in lace-up, over-the-knee boots with a giant sparkly poppy on her black dress and a perfect blow-dry, she looks immaculate, but she once shared a photo of herself on a bad hair day to debunk the myth of perfection for other women.
She is from the Madeleine Albright school, believing women must help other women. Which is why she's so proud of She Means Business, a joint initiative with Facebook, the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce to encourage female entrepreneurship. Launched 18 months ago, it gave 10,000 women training to help them launch their own businesses. For Mendelsohn, this is a personal mission. Her parents owned a catering firm, her grandparents had a haberdashery business and before joining Facebook she ran the advertising company Karmarama.
New research by She Means Business found that women are held back by a lack of relatable role models, so the latest ambition is to work with 50,000 women next year across the country, focusing on mentorship.
Does Mendelsohn consider herself a role model? There's a bashful smile. "My daughter Gabi, who's 20, says I am. That's what makes me the most proud. I was telling her how lucky I was that I had a mum who worked, and Gabi said, 'The same for me and my friends - we look at you and we learn'." Mendelsohn's eyes water. "I was like 'Oh my god!' It was really emotional."
The research found that women's confidence falls in their late 20s to mid 30s. "Where my daughter is today, it's 'seize the world, we can do anything' but really quickly the world tells them 'you can't do this'. Women look around and can't see anyone around like them doing it. We come into the workplace in equal numbers but filter out as you get more senior."
Men can help too, she stresses. "We have a lot of training here about being the ally. Men can make a massive impact on this. Turning around and telling their wives and daughters 'you can do this' is an enormous part of this. But so is being aware of your own biases and making sure you confront them. There's a lot of research on that - if you look at CVs and take the gender out, the women get many more interviews."
It's also about cash. Only a tenth of the money invested in companies is invested in those led by women. "That's to do with role models too. If you're an investor, you can see lots of different examples of men who have done successful businesses - there are far fewer women."
Facebook offers unconscious bias training for staff - it's voluntary but all of Mendelsohn's managers signed up. She still feels there's a lot of work to be done, though. "Is there enough diversity in tech? Definitely not. We publish our gender diversity report every year, because if you don't count, you can't address the problem. Our numbers are not good enough: 67% of our workforce is male - it's massively skewed because of the engineering side of the business, where we only have 17% women."
Are sexual harassment stories a big problem in the tech world? "I think people are realising that workplace environments are not good enough, and how that makes people feel. And some horrific things have happened. I can only speak for Facebook, and I am proud to say that I haven't seen any of this here."
Facebook keeps finding itself under scrutiny, especially over the proliferation of "fake news" and its role in elections. A fake story that Donald Trump had been endorsed by Pope Francis went viral on the site. Does she think Facebook should accept any blame for Trump's victory?
She chooses her words carefully: "The platform is a platform for people to have a voice - that's something we're proud of. Both the Republicans and the Democrats use Facebook for their campaigns - Barack Obama was a very famous case study. You have lots of different issues that swirl together in this area. But ultimately, elections are about people and what their choices are. They look to different places for news - Facebook is just one of those places."
Does she feel that Facebook is a publisher, though? "No," she says firmly. "We're a tech company."
The site has just announced that it will double the number of people working on "brand safety" - which includes "fake news" - from 10,000 to 20,000 people. "We're going to invest in the tools too - the machine-learning and the AI. The desire is that you should never see anything that isn't what you want to see in your news feed - that is real, that is credible. There's an area that's easy to sort out, around the types of companies that have financial incentive to spread false news - they get taken down. That's really clear."
Last week, Facebook's former (and founding) president Sean Parker said that both Facebook and Instagram were designed to consume as much of users' time as possible, which means they give you a "dopamine hit" when someone likes your photo or comments on a post. He termed it a "social validation feedback loop ... exploit(ing) a vulnerability in human psychology".
Does Mendelsohn share any of his concerns? "I don't know Sean, but ultimately it comes down to this - everybody's Facebook is different. You choose the friends you want to be friends with, the brands you want to follow, the newspapers, the publishers. Every single one is different and every single one really is about the things that matter to you. So it's almost a question back to people: if these are things that are important to people, then I think they do have a role in your life."
Are we addicted to getting "likes", though? "I can't speak for you," she laughs. "Well, I am not."
There have been rumours of a Mark Zuckerberg 2020 presidential run but Mendelsohn is dismissive. "He's been really clear that he has said no. He's running Facebook - that's quite a big job."
Mendelsohn herself sits on the Mayor of London's business advisory board. So would she ever consider a move into politics? She laughs so hard she struggles to answer. "That's a definite no."