The social media exec pitching the metaverse to the world

Meta ad chief Nicola Mendelsohn’s job is to pitch the company’s platforms to businesses around the world — and to her own Jewish community

For many Jews, their relationship with their rabbis usually starts — and ends — at the doors of the synagogue. 

Not so for Nicola Mendelsohn. The stalwart of the British Jewish community built close personal ties with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and his predecessor, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Their outside-of-synagogue hangouts looked a little different than a study session or a Shabbat dinner: Mendelsohn, Meta’s ad chief, once took Sacks and Mirvis on a climbing trip. In the metaverse. 

“If you reach up, it feels like you’re moving, and the imagery is going down. And in the same way as in real life, when you look up and down,” Mendelsohn told Jewish Insider in a recent Zoom interview from Herzliya Pituach, the coastal Israeli neighborhood where her family has a home. “It has exactly that same sort of feeling. And if you start to move around in the same way that you do in the real world, then you have that experience as well.” You don’t even need to grab onto anything, because Meta has developed “fantastic hand-tracking,” in Mendelsohn’s words. 

As the vice president of Meta’s global sales group, Mendelsohn oversees the company’s advertising business, a massive portfolio that makes her the biggest booster of Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and the company’s burgeoning metaverse-focused products like Oculus to businesses around the world — and to skeptics in her own communities who haven’t yet bought into the immersive augmented reality that Mendelsohn thinks everyone will soon be using. 

“There are so many extraordinary Jewish places of interest in history around the world that so few people ever get to see, and yet the metaverse can now — will be able to unlock all those types of experiences for people, which I find very exciting,” said Mendelsohn, who came to Facebook after 20 years in the advertising industry. 

What if, she explained, someone organized a metaverse tour of the synagogues of Europe? “Look to your left, look to your right, you’ll either have people you know, or people that you’re going into a group that you don’t know, and you’ll be able to converse together. You’ll be able to listen to an informed expert,” she added. “You’ll be able to see these extraordinary things, and then be able to reflect on them afterwards.”

“When we start to imagine what it could look like, I think it’s important not to think about just what happens in the real world. But what could happen, what could exist in totally different ways as well?” she asked.

What about a virtual synagogue, with virtual prayer services? What if a teen has a bar mitzvah “twin” in another part of the world, and they celebrate the coming-of-age ceremony together? “Given how important the communal acts of coming together for people in the Jewish community are, then I think there’ll be some fantastic experiences,” she said. 

And what if the metaverse could bring together people with rare diseases — like Mendelsohn, who is living with an incurable cancer — for immersive experiences and support groups, and put them in the same room as a philanthropist looking to fund a possible cure?

“When we start to imagine what it could look like, I think it’s important not to think about just what happens in the real world. But what could happen, what could exist in totally different ways as well?” she asked.

Mendelsohn’s remit at Meta is “enormously large,” said David Fischer, who spent 11 years as Facebook’s chief revenue officer. “She is responsible, ultimately, for building relationships with businesses [and] executives around the world, and ultimately figuring out how Meta’s tools can help those businesses grow — and in the process of doing that, serve the people on Meta’s platforms, and ultimately, then, serving Meta by helping to grow its revenue and its business,” explained Fischer.

Meta was a very different company when Mendelsohn, 51, joined nine years ago as vice president for Europe, Middle East and Asia. Back then, Facebook was still the business’s primary product, although CEO Mark Zuckerberg had recently acquired the nascent photo-sharing app Instagram. He had not yet added WhatsApp, the messaging service now used by over 2 billion people worldwide, to Facebook’s litany of services. The metaverse — the project that is now so critical to the company’s operations that it changed its name last year to Meta — was perhaps best known as a science-fiction concept. 

Nicola Mendelsohn speaks during a press conference in London to discuss the announcement of the social media company’s plans to hire 1,000 more people in the U.K. by the end of 2020. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)

In Mendelsohn’s first years at what was then Facebook, the Cambridge Analytica scandal that would alert many users to the company’s suspect data-collection habits was still years away, and Facebook instead enjoyed a largely positive reputation; in 2011, an Egyptian baby born during the Arab Spring had been named “Facebook” in honor of the social network’s role in the protest movement. Researchers had not yet begun to uncover the ways extremism and misinformation flourish on Meta’s products. 

The metaverse is not immune from those problems. Roblox, a popular virtual reality video game, came under fire earlier this year for offering users an experience at “Camp Concentration,” a metaverse version of Nazi death camps. (Roblox has no association with Meta.)

“We absolutely don’t want that on our platforms,” Mendelsohn said, citing the company’s figures that it has spent $16 billion on platform safety in recent years. “I do think there can sometimes be a misunderstanding about this. We want people, when they come onto our platforms, to be having a good time, to be connecting with their friends, to be connecting with their families.”

In recent years, the company has faced scrutiny from government officials, journalists and nonprofits for not doing enough to confront problems like hate speech and extremist content — and for developing algorithms that promote that content. “The suggestion that ‘We have spent so much money, and we’ve hired so many people, and therefore we’re good,’ I mean, that’s not a sufficient answer,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which in recent years has made a push for greater scrutiny of social media platforms. “The product should be redesigned to ensure that it creates an experience, which, again, I think, is safe for everyone, let alone society.” 

As an advertising executive, Mendelsohn isn’t in charge of making those changes herself — but she needs to be able to speak about them to business owners in a persuasive way that could assuage their concerns about brand safety. 

“All of them deserve answers to their questions and need to understand who they’re partnering with,” explained Fischer. “But that also creates a huge need to make sure that you’re focused not just on the narrower business relationship, but the broader sense of what each partner and what each company is working on [and] stands for. And that means being prepared to answer questions about any of these issues, particularly [as there is] more attention and questions that are being asked out there, be it in the press, be it by governments. Nicola and her teams need to be prepared and in my experience are prepared to answer questions.”

After stepping into her new position last fall, Mendelsohn relocated to New York City earlier this year. For the first time in her life, the Shabbat-observant executive is putting down roots far from the tight-knit British Jewish community in which she was raised, and in which she raised her four children. 

Her first full day as a resident of New York City was a Friday. Awash in the array of synagogues and Judaica shops and kosher bakeries that dot the streets of Manhattan, Mendelsohn went to the gift shop of the Jewish Museum for candlesticks and a challah cover. The family is still settling on a synagogue.

“There’s so many shuls that it’s actually a bit overwhelming, and because of COVID — we were regular shul-goers in the world before COVID — we haven’t actually landed on a shul yet,” Mendelsohn said. “I’m definitely open for recommendations in the Midtown area.”

Mendelsohn grew up in Manchester, the daughter of kosher caterers. She didn’t attend a Jewish school, and in the winter months would leave early on Fridays to be home in time for Shabbat, a practice she continues at Meta. 

“We had a couple of teachers that would always insist on starting the new topics on a Friday afternoon,” she said on a podcast interview in August. “With hindsight, I think there was probably some antisemitism that I experienced at school.”

In London, where Mendelsohn had lived for her entire adult life, she was active at her family’s synagogue. Mendelsohn’s husband, Lord Jonathan Mendelsohn, a member of the House of Lords, brought Jewish themes to his work, too; he once served as chairman of Labour Friends of Israel. Together, they serve as co-presidents of Norwood, a Jewish charity that supports vulnerable children in the U.K. 

“It’s just wonderful, just seeing a generation develop in the way that she has done,” said Lord Michael Levy, a macher in the British Jewish community who has held several senior positions in the Labour Party, including nine years as former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s special envoy to the Middle East. Levy has known the Mendelsohns since they were young, and he recalled that the couple stayed briefly at his home in Israel nearly 30 years ago, before they continued on to Jerusalem, where they got engaged. 

At Meta, Mendelsohn has built ties with Jewish employees several notches below her in seniority through a Jewish employee affinity group. It “can be anything from posting a Hanukkah photo and wishing Happy Hanukkah or Sukkot, to something much more substantial,” said Jordana Cutler, Meta’s public policy director for Israel and the Jewish diaspora. “If there’s an antisemitic attack in a city where we have employees, Nicola is one of the first to reach out to ensure people are OK.” 

Nicola Mendelsohn and Salma Hayek speak during The Facebook Creative Talks Part 1, as part of Advertising Week Europe, Piccadilly, on March 23, 2015, in London, England. (Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images for Advertising Week)

In Mendelsohn’s previous position overseeing Europe, Middle East and Asia, she made frequent trips to Israel. A few months into the new gig, she announced — on a trip where she also met with former Israeli President Shimon Peres — that Facebook would open its first research and development center outside of the U.S. in Israel. “I announced, I was like, ‘Within the year I’m going to open the office in Israel,’” she recalled. “To see the offices on Rothschild, and in Sarona [Market], being an absolute beating heart of the tech scene here now, and that connection with all those unicorn companies that weren’t unicorn companies when I met them nine years ago, they were fledgling ideas, visions, and to see that growth, that’s been particularly extraordinary.”

It helps that Mendelsohn can throw in some “todahs” and “shaloms” to earn the trust of Israelis. “I would say that Israelis really relate to that, when people know the country and understand it. She has words of Hebrew that she sprinkles in,” said Cutler.

Over the past five years, Mendelsohn has been living with an incurable cancer called follicular lymphoma, described by the Cleveland Clinic as a “slow-growing condition that’s considered a chronic illness.” 

“The diagnosis was a complete shock. I was fit and healthy and I didn’t even feel ill,” Mendelsohn wrote in Marie Claire in 2019. “It isn’t like other cancers, where you immediately go into a grueling treatment regime. It’s a slow-growing cancer, so patients can go for long periods without treatment and can have long gaps between treatments too.”

She has long been active philanthropically, and in the wake of her diagnosis, she started the Follicular Lymphoma Foundation to raise money to research a cure for the poorly understood disease. 

“What became clear as I went on my own learning journey, and this was a learning journey as a patient, was as a disease, it was one that not many people knew about, and that didn’t have a lot of funding behind it,” Mendelsohn explained. “The key things are you need a bit of awareness, and you need the cash in order to kind of push it on.” 

The foundation hopes to be a major player in American medical research on the disease. Next month, it will announce the recipients of a grant program that will award $500,000 to institutions studying follicular lymphoma. A fourth-quarter fundraising campaign last year raised $2.5 million from 6,000 donors, according to information provided by the foundation. 

Mendelsohn, always ready to boost her business, argued that philanthropy can have a place in the metaverse, too. Through a Facebook group, she has connected with more than 9,000 other people living with follicular lymphoma. What if they could get together in the metaverse?

“If we wanted to be able to have a hangout, and come together, we would be able to do that in a much more immersive way,” she noted. “Then imagine if there’s a philanthropist that’s interested in this cause. They could come and they could actually see and talk and feel that experience of what it is like to be able to live with a disease like that, and then what could be done as a result.” 

Nothing like that exists yet. “I’m just shooting from the breeze,” Mendelsohn admitted. But that’s her job: Convincing businesses, big and small, urban and rural, foreign and domestic, that things will go better for them if they advertise on Meta’s platforms. Meta clearly agrees.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.