Business News

Web Summit Appoints New CEO Amidst Israel Controversy

Skift Take

Web Summit is eagerly anticipating the arrival of 70,000 attendees in Lisbon in just two weeks. With a fresh CEO at the helm, it is determined to be the epicenter of the tech world, for all the right reasons.

Web Summit announced Katherine Maher as its CEO today via a blog post and video on LinkedIn. The rapid appointment comes just over a week after founder Paddy Cosgrave stepped down due to controversial comments on the Israel-Hamas War on X (formerly Twitter).

Cosgrave took the move after issuing an apology on the Web Summit blog, but not before several high-profile brands, including Meta, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Stripe, Siemens, and Intel, chose to distance themselves from the event.

Maher will be leading her new team of 300 global staff who are on their way to Lisbon soon for the company’s flagship event, scheduled for 13-16 November. She was previously CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organization that manages Wikipedia and several events globally, with a budget exceeding $100 million. Maher has also held management and leadership roles at banking and humanitarian organizations.

Potential Impact on Web Summit 2023

There seems to be no risk of cancellation, with organizers remaining confident that up to 70,000 participants will join them for a citywide event. Although some previously announced speakers appear to have canceled their participation, only investors have come forward in public statements regarding cutting ties with Web Summit.

Israel, via its ambassador to Portugal, was the first to distance itself from the event. While Israeli startups have participated in many event editions, they will not be present this year.

Bizzabo Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer Alon Alroy condemned Cosgrave’s social media posts in a LinkedIn post. In an email exchange with Skift Meetings, he added, “Paddy has a history of similar posts that are simply not acceptable as a business leader and influencer. Words have consequences. Moreover, calling on Western governments to condemn Israel’s retaliatory air strikes on Gaza while choosing to remain silent about the inhumane and brutal attacks by Hamas that preceded them is either pure ignorance or blatant antisemitism.”

Portugal Is Invested

Portugal will be understandably nervous about the future of Web Summit. It pays $21.2 million (€20 million) annually, $11.6 million in cash, and $9.5 other benefits. The Portuguese government signed the current deal worth $116 million (€110 million) in 2018 after luring the event from its original Dublin home in 2016. Early estimates by the Portuguese government indicated that Web Summit contributes $317 million (€300 million) annually to the country’s economy, although this number has been revised lower in subsequent studies.

Web Summit features 25 stages, 2,600 startups, 800 investors, and 2,000 media. Craig Becker, Web Summit’s chief events officer, will be leading an already complex build that will likely need to add extra security measures. The event’s communication team has turned off replies to its posts on X since publishing Cosgrave’s apology, suggesting it continues to deal with a backlash.

Web Summit has a history of dealing openly with controversial topics. For example, in 2019, it hosted Edward Snowden (remotely) for a session on the main stage. It carefully curates its speakers but sometimes has to make the decision to rescind invitations. In 2018, the event rescinded a previous invitation to Marine Le Pen, former French presidential candidate and former leader of the far-right National Rally political party. Last year, Web Summit took the same action with two speakers considered too pro-Russian.

Addressing Web Summit Qatar

Web Summit Qatar, a new addition to Web Summit’s portfolio of events, will debut in February. Qatar’s complex relationship with Hamas has also caused discomfort among those opposing the Web Summit. Cosgrave addressed this issue in his apology, “Like the US government, Web Summit believes in working with regional and global partners – including Qatar – to encourage the dialogue and communication on which peace depends and to strive for a just and lasting settlement to the underlying questions facing the region.” He also refers to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s acknowledgment of Qatar’s cooperation in this crisis.

While Cosgrave’s stepping down as CEO may have helped Web Summit stay on track, his ownership stake in the business remains a factor that makes it hard for companies to separate the departed CEO’s views from the company. “Paddy may have apologized, but it happened too late and only after his big sponsors started to pull out,” said Alroy. “As long as he is involved as chairman/owner, I will personally not participate in his future events,” he added.