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Throughout her career, Nicola Mendelsohn, VP of Global Business Group at Meta, has learned that no matter how much planning you do, you can’t predict everything. Understanding how to adapt and move forward has served her well as she rose through the ranks in the advertising industry—spending time at BBH, Grey, and Karmarama before landing at Facebook, now Meta, in 2013– and navigated a few surprises in her personal life, as well.
Never was this more true than in 2016 when Nicola was diagnosed with Follicular Lymphoma, an incurable form of blood cancer. Rather than being paralyzed by this devastating news, she moved forward with her characteristic clarity and a reinvigorated passion for her family and career that has guided her decisions both personally and professionally.
Controlling What You Can
Shortly after being diagnosed with her cancer, she, like so many others, turned to Facebook to connect with others facing the same disease and eventually found the ‘Living with Follicular Lymphoma’ Group. The insight, advice and support she gained from this close-knit community inspired her to launch the Follicular Lymphoma Foundation, the first charity focused solely on finding a cure for the disease and helping people with follicular lymphoma to live well and get well.
For Nicola, raising awareness and funds for Follicular Lymphoma has become a key focus and illustrates her “expect the unexpected” approach to life and her “control what you can control” approach to problem-solving.
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Expecting the Unexpected
Both philosophies served her well when COVID-19 hit. “No one could have foreseen the events of the past two years. One thing we’ve all realized – especially when all the plans made both personally and professionally became seemingly irrelevant overnight – is that we need to be adaptable. To cope with the unexpected, we need to be ready with quick decision making and flexible thinking,” she explained. “That’s a muscle we have all learned to flex and will continue to build.”
Nicola was again forced to flex this muscle after getting her COVID-19 vaccine and learning that they weren’t always as effective on immunocompromised people. And after completing an antibody test, the results showed that she had not developed any antibodies. She described this as “gut-wrenching” in our conversation – realizing that her hope of returning to a sense of normalcy was still some time away.
Despite this disappointment, Nicola found the silver lining in her circumstances: enjoying extra time with her family. And when she wasn’t able to travel, she found some solutions that were already in reach, noting that virtual reality was able to fill that gap and offer a defining quality of presence, feeling like she was right there with other people when she physically couldn’t be. At work, she quickly started doing things like having her leadership team meetings via Horizon Workrooms (Meta’s VR collaboration workspace) and quickly realized it was way more immersive than the other video conferencing tools she frequently used.
The good news is that thanks to advances in medicine, Nicola now has built up better immunity to COVID-19 and is back to doing all the things she likes to do best. And although her cancer is one that you always live with, she now has no evidence of it thanks to treatments.
However, one of the most challenging aspects of FL for many people is that it’s an “invisible” cancer – that between treatments you appear to be well and may not have visible signs or symptoms, but you are still living with cancer.
Leading with Empathy
With all Nicola has gone through — not only in her decades-long career but also in her personal health — she knows the importance of leading with empathy and being a leader with high emotional intelligence.
“There’s so much right now for people to process – how they live, how they’re returning to work, plus how they manage their health, their finances and more,” she explained. “It’s crucial to be mindful of how people are processing change and helping them through it.”
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Because of this, Nicola says she always starts team offsites with a well-being check-in, asking how people are doing on a personal level. Beyond her direct teams, Nicola also looks for how she can support others on a more macro level, with a particular focus on women in tech and entrepreneurship.
“I want to help not just my team, but also inspire the next generation of women to dream big – and be anything they want to be,” she noted.
Women Supporting Women
One area that Nicola is especially proud of is the work being done at Meta to push for gender parity both inside the walls of one of the world’s largest tech companies and beyond. In 2016, she launched #SheMeansBusiness, a digital skills training program, in EMEA which has since expanded globally. To date, the program has supported more than 1.5 million women and this year, expanded to address the gap that women face in topics like financial literacy – offering training on everything from how to effectively manage their business finances to understanding financial health, in order to unlock the tremendous potential of women entrepreneurs.
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Looking to the future, Nicola is helping Meta lead the charge to level the playing field for women across the world. She shares, “Our goal is to have 50 percent of our workforce made up of women globally, and underrepresented minorities in the US. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve doubled the number of women in our workforce since 2019, and continue to increase the number of women in leadership roles.”
While Nicola has faced myriad challenges between her health and navigating her career, it’s taught her that life is too short not to invest time in the things that are important to you. She hopes that her journey will influence other women and entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams, big or small, and to push through no matter how hard circumstances may be.
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