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Web Summit’s new CEO: Who is Katherine Maher?

New boss faces choppy waters as she replaces Paddy Cosgrave

In the end, the appointment of a new chief executive for Web Summit was quick. Just a week after Paddy Cosgrave stepped down in the wake of comments on the Israel-Hamas conflict, Katherine Maher was named in his place, defying expectations that the company would choose an internal candidate or that it would be a drawn-out process.

The news arrived on Monday, with a personal letter from Maher on the Web Summit blog and a video statement. She had been appointed to oversee the period of transition and steer the conversation back to what Web Summit does best: connecting people and ideas.

On the strength of her CV alone, Maher is a strong replacement for the at-times controversial Cosgrave. She is the former head of the Wikimedia Foundation, the global non-profit behind Wikipedia, and spent five years in the role from 2016. During her time there, she introduced several measures, including a universal code of conduct to govern contributions to the platform.

At a time when public confidence was low in media, Wikipedia managed to not only keep people’s trust but build on it – the subject of talks that Maher has delivered in the past. By the time she left, it was also considered one of the most successful tech non-profits out there, growing its endowment to more than $90 million (€85 million) and doubling its annual budget to $140 million in 2021.


When she left the foundation two years ago, Maher said in an interview with Axios that she intended to move back to the east coast of the US and was up for a challenge. Web Summit will certainly be that. The 40 year old has a mammoth task ahead of her.

Regaining the goodwill that her predecessor’s words and actions may have damaged among some sections of the tech community won’t be an easy task, and persuading sponsors to return while Cosgrave still retains a majority stake in the firm may be difficult.

The Wikimedia Foundation is not the only entry on her CV. Before joining the foundation, Maher was a member of the US think tank Council on Foreign Relations and worked for Unicef, the National Democratic Institute, Access Now and the World Bank. Those roles looked at the use of technology and data to help improve peoples’ lives and governance, focusing on developing nations.

Since then, she has joined the Atlantic Council, where she is a non-resident senior fellow on democracy and technology, and currently serves as part of the foreign affairs policy board for the US department of state. Maher is also a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project. She is also chairwoman of the Signal Foundation, the messaging company that has been viewed as a rival to WhatsApp.

Cosgrave got Web Summit to 300 employees and numerous spin-off conferences. Maher’s job will be to build on that and move the company forward.

First up is the Lisbon event, which takes place in less than two weeks. Some 70,000 people are expected to attend, but Lisbon will be without a number of high-profile sponsors, speakers and investors, among them Google, Intel, IBM, Siemens and Amazon Web Services.

Although Maher’s immediate focus is on Lisbon, Web Summit’s headquarters in Dublin will still likely be high on her list. Maher was born and raised in the US but as her last name implies, she has more Irish links than just her new job.

Both of her parents have Irish heritage dating back to the Famine years. On her father’s side, the family can trace its roots to Templemore, Co Tipperary; on her mother’s, Mount Talbot and Tisrara in Co Roscommon. It is something Maher has embraced, with the family taking a trip to Ireland in 2010 to visit their ancestors’ homes.

How the company arrived at Maher as a candidate is not yet known – when the outgoing boss departs suddenly, in general firms appoint an interim chief with the search for a permanent chief executive taking months. But when she inevitably takes to the stage at Web Summit in two weeks’ time, it won’t be her first appearance there. In 2019, she spoke on stage in her role as head of the Wikimedia Foundation, discussing how tech platforms need to remain open, and she has spoken positively about her experience attending the conference in the past.

She is making all the right noises, too, turning the focus back on to the event rather than its controversial co-founder and his comments.

“Today Web Summit is entering its next phase,” she said. “I am excited to announce that I am joining Web Summit as CEO, because I believe in Web Summit’s mission to connect people and ideas that change the world. Our immediate task at hand is returning the focus to what we do best: facilitating discussions among everyone involved in technological progress.”