Oct. 26, 2022

Tech entrepreneur stacks up accomplishments living in overdrive

2022 Top 40 Under 40: Mark Blackwell, BComm’11; general partner, Builders VC; chair of the $100-million Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund
Mark Blackwell
Mark Blackwell Avenue Magazine

Here, in a nutshell, is what Mark Blackwell, 34, has accomplished since graduating from the Haskayne School of Business in 2011: In 2014, he moved to Silicon Valley and became COO of GNS3 Technologies (a Calgary startup that built technology to help replace physical network hardware), rebranded the company, launched its online community, and then sold it in 2015 to a publicly traded U.S. firm for $32 million. Along the way, he got married, travelled for a year, had a baby boy, returned to Calgary and began working with an international venture fund, Builders VC. He also became board chair of the $100-million Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund that builds capacity for tech entrepreneurs. As part of that, Blackwell has funded more than $80 million of training initiatives with SAIT and UCalgary’s Life Sciences Innovation Hub, to Plug and Play Ventures on the company accelerator and venture funds side.

Do you remember any classes or professors who were standouts?

Dr. Bob will, forever, be the legendary professor who is unforgettable. I remember him finding me at a high-school debate competition as part of his early recruitment program and then, later, becoming my amazing mentor and role model. He still is.

Can you recall any embarrassing moments that happened to you as a student?

I can remember failing an English proficiency exam in my first year and the dean calling me into his office, shaking his head, as it technically could have disqualified me from enrolling in my second year at Haskayne. Thankfully, he was able to waive the requirement; however, I had to work with a special tutor who prepared me for the exam that I had to retake in the summer.  

Where did you hang out on campus?

I spent most of my life in the old club’s trailers (now the new Scurfield Hall). They have since been torn down (for good reason), but we decked out our club’s office with a panini-maker, pull-out couch and fridge, so I can remember sleeping there many nights while cramming for exams and drinking lots of Red Bull.

Favourite classes?

Art of Negotiations with Loren Falkenberg, who taught me the technical tricks and tips on how to be a fantastic sales negotiator.

The Inter-Collegiate Business Competition, which Dr. Bob allowed us to take as a class and where we got to compete in the biggest case competition at Queen's University. There were 32 competing teams so you can imagine the pressure . . . but winning Gold and being able to represent the U of C was absolutely incredible.  

What has been your biggest career highlight?

After bootstrapping GNS3 while living in a hacker house in Silicon Valley for a couple years . . .  it was amazing to scale the business to more than 2 million users with only three people working at the company. I am so proud of the work we did (along with my two co-founders) and the fact we were able to sell the company for $32 million, just two years after launching it.

What is the most satisfying thing about your job?

Getting to meet inspiring and brave entrepreneurs every day who are looking to change the sector or space they are in. They are the true risk-takers who put so much on the line each day into . . . really, the unknown.

What do you wish you knew more about?

I wish I spent more time learning more languages. In 2018, we travelled the world for 12 months and I so often wished that I could have communicated with the amazing people we met along the way.

Who are your biggest heroes?

When we were younger my parents sacrificed so much to support my sister and I, including working night shifts. Dick Haskayne has always been an extraordinary mentor and I recall the first time meeting him through JA [Junior Achievement] when he convinced me to stay in Calgary. Besides being there to support me, he also instilled values rooted in philanthropy, integrity and humility.  

Any advice for students or new grads? 

Take risks early on in your career and don’t be afraid to fail. If one door closes, another will open. The jobs I got rejected for eventually led me to where I am now. Also, as life progresses your risk-profile changes, so take chances, travel the world and get outside your comfort zone early in your career.

What are you watching or reading these days? 

I have become a bit of Stoic philosophy junkie lately, as I think there are timeless lessons to be learned from various sages. I always keep the Meditations from Marcus (by Marcus Aurelius) by my bedside as a constant reminder of the most important lessons in life.

When you are not working, what do you do?

Spend time with the most amazing 21-month-old toddler, my son, who keeps me on my toes.

If you were to go back to school, what would you take?

I would either go back and take a degree in philosophy but, honestly, I’d like to learn how to become a full-time barista as my wife and I have always had a dream of opening a coffee shop.


With files from Avenue Magazine.

Meet the entire 2022 cohort of Top 40 Under 40 honourees at Avenue Magazine.