Web Summit CEO jumps ship to head up NPR after just 3 months

Paulo Boaventura
6 Min Read

Technology can sometimes move at the speed of light. And so, too, can technology executives. In a shock move, Web Summit announced today that Katherine Maher — who was hastily appointed to the role of CEO and chairperson of the events company at the end of October 2023 — is stepping down from the role to take on a new job as the CEO of National Public Radio, the nonprofit U.S. media group.

Maher had stepped into the job at Web Summit at a time of crisis. Just weeks before the company’s flagship event in Lisbon, Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave was effectively forced to resign from the dual role after remarks he made criticizing Israel in the hours and days after Hamas first attacked civilians in the country. The remarks went viral, leading to a number of high-profile people and companies canceling their participation in the event.

Maher’s quick departure might be seen as ironic, given her appointment was made to try to stabilize the organization after Cosgrave’s resignation. Cosgrave still owns 80% of the parent company, but he no longer has any operational or executive role.

In a statement issued by Web Summit, Maher said: “I have absolutely loved leading the Web Summit team. Even in a short space of time I have seen the determination, passion, and creativity across teams to continuously deliver incredible events to the world. While I’m sad to leave, I am thrilled to contribute in a different way as Chair, continuing to work with the executive team through 2024 and beyond.”

We asked to speak directly to Maher. A spokesperson said she would be giving only one interview: to NPR.

Web Summit said its board “has already begun the search for a new chief executive.”

The move comes as Web Summit looks to steer its business into new territory, and away from the controversy of last autumn, although some might argue that it’s not steering far away enough. Web Summit has been planning an inaugural conference in just one month’s time in Doha, Qatar (on February 26).

Officially, Maher will stay on as Web Summit CEO to see through that event, before stepping down on March 1. When she does so, a spokesperson said she will stay on as a non-executive chair of Web Summit’s board.

A source who declined to go on the record said the offer from NPR had come “out of the blue,” which would perhaps explain Maher’s extremely short tenure. The offer had “happened quickly” and was an opportunity Maher felt she “couldn’t turn down,” given NPR’s stature in the U.S. and her background in free information, they said.

NPR has a weekly audience of 44 million people and will be among those media entities vying for attention in a pivotal U.S. election year. NPR announced in September 2023 that its previous CEO, John Lansing, would be retiring at the end of the year. (It’s not clear when NPR and Maher first began talking.)

Maher has had a long history of involvement in tech and policy advocacy, with a focus on human and digital rights. Previous roles include CEO and executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (between 2019 and 2021), and she is chair of the board of the foundation behind the private messaging app Signal. She also holds various other board and fellowship positions — including on the Atlantic Council and the Truman National Security Project.

Cosgrave’s remarks on Twitter about Israel’s (at the time) planned invasion of Hamas-held Gaza led to a number of high-profile tech figures, investors and large organizations, including Google/Alphabet, Meta, Intel, Amazon, and Stripe, to pull out of last year’s conference.

Individuals who spoke out against attending included Keith Rabois (Founders Fund), fintech entrepreneur and investor David Marcus, Garry Tan (Y Combinator), and Adam Singolda (Taboola), among many others.

The news of Maher’s departure, only three months after her appointment, could potentially lead to further damage to Web Summit’s standing among speakers and sponsors. The company claims 12,000 attendees are already registered for the Web Summit in Qatar, which will see — at least so far — Trevor Noah as a headline speaker. Web Summit Rio in April and its North American event Collision are both still planned to go ahead.

In separate developments, Web Summit also announced that Craig Becker, Web Summit chief events officer, had joined the board as an executive board director. He will assume the executive director role on the board vacated by Mike Sexton, the Web Summit CMTO, following the end of his four-year service as director.



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