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While in graduate school, Wales taught at two universities; however, he departed before completing a Ph D to take a job in finance and later worked as the research director of a Chicago futures and options firm.
In 1996, he and two partners founded Bomis, an adult web portal featuring entertainment and adult content.
In an October 2009 speech, Wales recollected attempting to write a Nupedia article on Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert C.
Merton, but being too intimidated to submit his first draft to the prestigious finance professors who were to peer review it, even though he had published a paper on Option Pricing Theory and was comfortable with the subject matter.
He is historically cited as a co-founder of Wikipedia, though he has disputed the "co-" designation, declaring himself the sole founder.
Wales serves on the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, the non-profit charitable organization that he helped establish to operate Wikipedia, holding its board-appointed "community founder" seat.
But this is a futile process because in our brave new world of transparent activity and maximum communication, the truth will out." In a 2004 interview with Slashdot, Wales outlined his vision for Wikipedia: "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." Although his formal designation is board member and chairman emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wales's social capital within the Wikipedia community has accorded him a status that has been characterized as benevolent dictator, constitutional monarch and spiritual leader.
World Book sent out stickers for owners to paste on the pages in order to update the encyclopedia, and Wales was careful to put the stickers to work, stating, "I joke that I started as a kid revising the encyclopedia by stickering the one my mother bought." During an interview in 2005 with Brian Lamb, Wales described his childhood private school as a "Montessori influenced philosophy of education", where he "spent lots of hours poring over the Britannicas and World Book Encyclopedias".
The company would provide the initial funding for the peer-reviewed free encyclopedia, Nupedia (2000–2003), and its successor, Wikipedia.
On January 15, 2001, with Larry Sanger and others, Wales launched Wikipedia—a free, open content encyclopedia that enjoyed rapid growth and popularity; as Wikipedia's public profile grew, he became the project's promoter and spokesman.
Wales characterized this as the moment he realized that the Nupedia model was not going to work.
In January 2001, Sanger was introduced to the concept of a wiki by extreme programming enthusiast Ben Kovitz after explaining to Kovitz the slow pace of growth Nupedia endured as a result of its onerous submission process.