Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales celebrates failures in 2021 Baird Lecture

Jimmy Wales, founder of the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia, spoke to the Elon community about embracing failure and being resilient during the 2021 Baird Lecture.

Jimmy Wales founded the fifth-most popular website in the world and has been named one of TIME’s “100 Most Influential People,” but he isn’t driven by his accomplishments.

“When I’m asked to give a speech like this to learners and students, people usually assume I’m going to talk about my success,” Wales told a virtual audience of Elon students, faculty and staff on Thursday. “But actually what I think is more interesting is failure – Jimmy Wales is good at it.”

During the 2021 Baird Lecture, Wales highlighted the many failures that led him to become founder of Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia viewed by hundreds of millions of people around the world every day. Wikipedia has received traffic from more than 1.5 billion unique devices and is home to 50 million articles in 288 languages. However, that success hasn’t come without many other instances of failure, Wales said.

He told the audience about a failed attempt to introduce online food ordering in 1996 and another idea for an online search engine, among other projects. Those business ventures, Wales said, eventually led him to Wikipedia. Wales encouraged young entrepreneurs to apply that same resilience to their own projects, but to also be open to new ideas and opportunities.

“Don’t think of yourself as tied to a particular business,” Wales said. “Think of yourself as a creative, autonomous being who can do all kinds of different things. And you will try things and they won’t work out, and if you approach it in the right way, when they don’t work out, you will also be learning.”

Wales also addressed the era of “fake news,” which he said has been driven by advertising-only business models that promote page views and clickbait headlines over truth. He showcased his ad-free social media platform WT:Social that seeks to combat the issue. With WT:Social as an example, Wales urged students to continue learning, growing and turning experiences into bigger and better ideas for the future, while remaining steadfast throughout the journey.

“Real entrepreneurs fail and fail and fail, but enjoy yourself along the way. If you enjoy yourself along the way, in the end, you will succeed.”

Prior to Thursday’s lecture, Elon President Connie Ledoux Book honored Wales with the Imagining the Internet Center’s Arete Medallion in recognition of his contributions to the creation and continuing expansion of the foremost platform for informing and educating the world. The Medallion is awarded to highly distinguished humanists, innovators, change agents and thought leaders who have been dedicated to initiating and sustaining significant contributions that have positively impacted the global future.

The Baird Lecture was endowed in 2002 by a gift from James H. Baird and his late wife, Jane M. Baird, of Burlington, North Carolina. The lecture is among the broad offerings of academic and special programs presented by Elon as part of its Spring Cultural Calendar series of events. A selection of featured events from February and March is included below. Find the full lineup of Spring 2021 Cultural Events here.