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Web Summit names ex-Wikimedia CEO, Katherine Maher, to take over in wake of Cosgrave controversy

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Image Credits: VGrigas (WMF) (opens in a new window) / Wikimedia Commons (opens in a new window) under a CC BY-SA 3.0 (opens in a new window) license.

Web Summit has named a new CEO: Katherine Maher — previously CEO and executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (between 2019 and 2021). Maher is also chair of the board of the foundation behind the private messaging app Signal, and holds various other board and fellowship positions — including on the Atlantic Council and the Truman National Security Project. She also has a history of involvement in tech advocacy, with a focus on human and digital rights.

In a brief video announcing her appointment, Maher made no mention of the controversy that ousted Web Summit’s long-standing CEO and co-founder, Paddy Cosgrave earlier this month — after outrage triggered by remarks he made following the October 7 Hamas attacks in Israel.

Cosgrave’s remarks and attitude in response to criticism led to a number of high-profile tech figures and others to make public statements saying they would no longer participate in the conference.

Maher’s address today makes, perhaps, the subtlest of tacit acknowledgements of the challenges Web Summit faces in rebuilding bridges in the wake of the controversy: “I’m coming to you from Lisbon where I really hope to see you soon in November,” she offers tentatively in her intro.

“I worked with one of the largest and most diverse technology communities in the world as CEO of Wikimedia, and now I’m incredibly excited to work alongside the Web Summit team in your global community,” Maher goes on in the video. “Web Summit gathers and connects thousands of innovators from every corner of the world. And, as with every year, brings important voices and conversations to the stage. Through this connection and conversation we enable the dialogue on how technology shapes our lives and the world around us. I look forward to seeing you soon in Lisbon. Thank you.”

The tech conference is programmed to take place mid next month (November 13-15), giving Maher just a few short weeks to steer the event into calmer waters — and, crucially, to try to reconnect participants alienated by Cosgrave’s stance on events in the Middle East.

Major tech firms including Google/Alphabet, Meta, Intel, Amazon and Stripe had said they would pull out of the upcoming Web Summit event, as we reported last week. Individuals who spoke out against attending include Keith Rabois (Founders Fund, fintech entrepreneur and investor David Marcus, Garry Tan (Y Combinator) and Adam Singolda (Taboola), among many others.

It remains to be seen whether all those who had vowed to cut ties with Web Summit’s events will be convinced to rethink. But the choice of Maher to take over as CEO is clearly intended to signal a break with the past — with a leadership style that offers a switch from controversy to consensus.

In a statement accompanying the announcement, Maher emphasizes the mission, as she sees it, is one of connection and conversation.

“In a present where technology is interwoven into every aspect of our lives, and in a future where it represents our greatest hope and our greatest disruptor, Web Summit’s role as a place for connection and conversation is more urgent than ever,” she suggests, offering another subtle acknowledgment that the event has been derailed. “Our immediate task is returning the focus to what we do best: delivering dialogue among all those connected with technological advancement.”

Also today Web Summit announced it has appointed tech entrepreneur Damian Kimmelman as a non-executive board director.

Cosgrave, who had chaired the Web Summit board, also stepped down from the board earlier this month.

Web Summit confirms Lisbon and Qatar events still on, ex-CEO Paddy Cosgrave has 80% ownership of business

Paddy Cosgrave has stepped down as CEO of Web Summit

Web Summit derailed by founder’s public fight with those supporting Israel in Hamas war

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