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Tuesday June 6th

Former Ancestry CEO and documentary filmmaker give 2020 Eve Carson Lecture

(From left) John Wilson and Tim Sullivan converse about their time as UNC Undergraduates during Thursday’s Eve Carson Lecture on Thurs, Feb. 27, 2020.
Buy Photos (From left) John Wilson and Tim Sullivan converse about their time as UNC Undergraduates during Thursday’s Eve Carson Lecture on Thurs, Feb. 27, 2020.

Last Thursday’s Eve Marie Carson Lecture featured two graduates from the UNC class of 1985: longtime friends Tim Sullivan and John Wilson, who shared wisdom from their time at the school and their ensuing careers. 

UNC Student Body President Ashton Martin and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz opened the lecture by paying tribute to Eve Carson, a Morehead-Cain scholar and the 2007-08 UNC student body president that started the Distinguished Lecture Series. 

“Tim is a Tar Heel, through and through,” Guskiewicz said. “And like Eve, he was a Morehead-Cain scholar who took advantage of everything that Carolina had to offer him.”

The lecture was presented by the Carolina Women’s Leadership Council, who adopted the series in 2010. Though initially named the Distinguished Lecture Series, the name was changed to honor Carson, who was murdered in 2008.

Sullivan was the keynote speaker of the lecture, which was held at Hill Hall. He spoke from his experience as the former chief executive officer and current chairperson of the Board of Directors for, Sullivan said in the lecture, has created the beginnings of a giant map of human relatedness, and has changed the way people can connect with their ethnicities and genetics.

“The reality is that this age of genetic anonymity is pretty much behind us forever; it’s gone,” he said during the lecture. “So what happens when there are no more family genetic secrets — when someone’s understanding of their family truth can change in an instant?”

Sullivan said while this change has mostly brought positive, uplifting results, like adopted children reconnecting with their birth parents, fathers connecting with children they didn’t know they had and a killer being identified using his DNA sample, there have been some unexpected negative consequences. 

Some customers have made discoveries like finding a child from a secret relationship or false paternity that cause rifts between people in their lives, he said. He also mentioned the need for consent from both parties when two genetic relatives reconnect. 

Following Sullivan's speech, Wilson joined him onstage and asked questions about his career and about their time as undergraduates at the University. 

Sullivan and Wilson met during their first year, and the two reminisced on their experiences, including helping found UNC Student Television. 

When they arrived at the University, both Wilson and Sullivan thought they wanted to pursue STEM-related careers. But instead, Sullivan ended up working for the Walt Disney Co. and as the CEO of, and Wilson became an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, a conservationist and a lecturer at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

For Sullivan, the best part of his jobs with and was how he was able to advance the companies.

“I have enjoyed, in particular, these last two companies that I’ve worked for, taking them from much smaller businesses and growing them over many years to a different size,” he said. “But I’ve also enjoyed that they were companies and products — and I’d extend that to Disney — that gave people joy.”

Wilson said he moved from making documentaries primarily about southern history to exploring environmental issues, especially those pertaining to climate change. He said it’s the freedom to explore what he wants that he appreciates most about his work.

“The thing I like best about documentary filmmaking is being able to select topics that interest me the most,” he said. “I’ve heard documentary filmmaking referred to as being a ‘student of life,’ and as my interests have changed through time, so has my documentary filmmaking.”

Giving advice to current students, Sullivan said the most important things a student can learn are the ability to write persuasively, to speak and argue and to listen and process information.

Sullivan and Wilson said they were grateful for the experiences they had thanks to UNC, which helped them discover what they really wanted to do with their lives. 

“There’s so much here, there’s so much going on, and if you get off your butt and get out and really partake of the University, you expose yourself to so much,” Sullivan said. “And when you expose yourself to new ideas and things that you maybe didn’t even know you were interested in, sparks fly, and you may find a completely new passion.”

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