If you visit Jimmy Wales’ personal website, the header simply says “Jimmy Wales – Free knowledge for free minds.” That’s what it’s always been about for Jimmy Donal “Jimbo” Wales, born on August 7, 1966 in Huntsville, Alabama.
Wikipedia is the fifth-most visited site on the Internet today
Wikipedia is available in 285 languages that together attract 516 million unique visitors and more than 20 billion page views per month, all because of the crowdsourced efforts of its contributors to keep the pages updated and accurate as “The Free Encyclopedia.”
But it wouldn’t exist without the drive, passion and vision that Wales brought to bear. However, unlike the founders of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook, Jimmy Wales did not get venture fund investments, and did not go down the IPO route. He’s barely a millionaire now, paying child support in Florida and the upkeep on a new family in London. Not to mention that his main job as far as Wikipedia is concerned is to attract donations to keep the servers online.
Metamorphism from Jimmy Wales to “The” Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia
As a libertarian and acolyte of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, one would think that Wales would be dismayed at not getting the just rewards of his incredibly successful venture. But he seems content with his celebrity and conversion from Jimmy Wales to “The” Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia. He’s one of the few truly successful Internet entrepreneurs and pioneers who never made a billion. Yet…
As the son and grandson of teachers running their own single-room school, Wales had a natural inclination towards reading and study while growing up in Huntsville. The World Book Encyclopedia is still a part of his collection. Needless to say, the feeling is not mutual since Wales single-handedly put the entire encyclopedia publishing industry out of business.
He also had an uncle who owned a computer shop, so Wales was hooked on programming at an early age. But he chose a more conventional career, studying finance at Auburn University and then pursuing a PhD in Finance at the University of Alabama. He obtained a Master’s at UA before transferring to Indiana University, and then dropped out to work for a futures and options trading firm in Chicago. From 1994 to 1996, Jimmy Wales had a pretty much nondescript career at Chicago Options Associates.
Those turbulent Dot-Com times between 1995-2000 and after
The roots of his founding of Wikipedia go back to this period from 1995-2000, when the dot-com bubble was picking up steam and Netscape had moved from a successful IPO to an acquisition by AOL in a mega-transaction valued at $10 billion. Wales tinkered around with a lot of digital startup ideas during this period, including a search engine called Bomis launched in 1996 that became briefly infamous for its web rings of female celebrity image galleries.
In March 2000, he founded Nupedia as a peer-reviewed open-content encyclopedia, and installed Larry Sanger as its editor-in-chief so that it would have some credibility in academic circles. Their intention was to collect articles written by experts and reviewed by peers, so that it would be just as good as an encyclopedia. They planned to sell ads to monetize the site. Around this time, Wales and his second wife Christine Rohan had a daughter Kira who was born with a rare lung condition that would be fatal if left untreated, but for which there was no known cure. There was a doctor in San Diego who was offering an untested procedure which called for the child to be paralyzed briefly multiple times to clear the lungs.
The procedure worked on Kira, and she is now a normal 12-year old living with her mother in Florida. The episode made Wales realize how limited the awareness of the doctor’s priceless knowledge was, and made him want to find a way to spread this knowledge.
Whether by design or accident, Wikipedia was now his mission, which he describes as “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.”
They added the Wiki component because the Nupedia project was just too slow. Wikipedia, as it was called, was meant to create collaborative content that could be submitted to Nupedia, but Wales soon found that Wikipedia was taking off big time while Nupedia was nowhere in the picture.
In 2003, Wales founded the Wikimedia Foundation
Wales soon realized that the altruistic nature of this mission and the selfless army of contributors and editors it required made it impossible to turn the site into a money-spinner without damaging the structure. In 2003, Wales founded the Wikimedia Foundation, a charitable non-profit, to take over ownership of Wikipedia and provide all the content free of charge on the Internet.
This is another one of the turning points in his life, where Jimmy Wales gave up the opportunity to become a billionaire and secured the future of Wikipedia. It also freed him to look past Wikipedia and focus on other endeavors.
In 2004, Wales and Angela Beesley launched Wikia Inc., which hosts individual wikis that do not belong in the encyclopedia. It’s a for-profit, and doing decently enough now, with almost 700 collaborative communities, more than 30.6 million pages and 67.4 million monthly visitors. Along the way, Jimmy Wales collected high-profile awards and accolades including being named as one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.” He was the chairman of the Wikimedia Foundation until 2006, and is now the chairman emeritus.
His personal life is just as compartmentalized as his career graph. Jimmy Wales’ first wife was Pamela Green, whom he met while he was working in a grocery store and married at the age of 20. In 1997, he married his second wife Christine Rohan, whom he had met as a fellow trader in Chicago.
Now, in his post-Wikipedia phase as an international celebrity, Wales is in his third marriage to Kate Garvey, who was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s diary secretary. They got married in Oct 2012, and live in London. Jimmy Wales has two daughters – Kira and another daughter from his latest marriage to Kate Garvey.
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