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Community-Minded: Gordon Bernhardt (McIntire ’85) Focuses on Others

Bernhardt says that our actions, not our intentions, define our lives. As such, it’s clear that his gifts to McIntire have provided a vehicle for Bernhardt to openly live his values to the greatest extent.

Gordon Bernhardt

A long journey can share many of the triumphs and troubles that define a career path, but it’s often difficult to make sense of either. For Gordon Bernhardt, a trek of incredible magnitude—more than 600 miles—served to not only offer perspective and clarity about his experiences, but it also became the basis for greater reflection that took the form of a memoir: Buen Camino: What a Hike through Spain Taught Me about Investing and Life.

A Principal and Wealth Manager of Modera Wealth Management, Bernhardt set out along the ancient pilgrim route, the Camino de Santiago in Spain, in 2018, leaving from the French Pyrenees and traversing Europe to northern Spain’s Atlantic coast. What followed in his great undertaking brought the type of lucidity most of us could only hope to ever achieve, with Bernhardt trading sweat and footsteps for a deeper understanding about his business, relationships, and what really matters.

One important result of traveling the road was the forming of new relationships with his fellow travelers, a loosely bound group of folks from different countries he met on the very first day he began.

“We walked and talked, and something just clicked,” Bernhardt says, referring to the group as his “fellowship” with whom he shared a bond from the beginning. “I didn’t see them every day of my 35-day, 618-mile walk, but it was always good to reconnect with them along the way. And I felt very fortunate to be able to walk the final stretch and finish the journey with three of the members of my fellowship.”

Building a spontaneous community—seemingly by chance, yet nevertheless vital and supportive—would come to define his many steps along on the Camino de Santiago. Motivated by the act of seeking a shared destination was something he enjoyed and that he and his fellowship held dear as they continued on their route. In much the same way, Bernhardt’s commitment to philanthropy reflects a philosophy he shares with others who join him as vital members of the McIntire community.

“For me, helping often involves creating a community where one didn’t exist, connecting with others and supporting one another. I did this with my fellowship, and the experience ended up helping me prepare me for big personal and professional challenges that would eventually come my way,” he says, pointing out that the support of others was instrumental in enabling him to define what was at the core of his goals: the reasons paramount to his interests, the inspiration driving his efforts, and the rationale informing his future decisions.

“For me, it’s not money or having my name on a building or business. It’s about the people I love and serve: my clients, family, and community,” he says.

One important result of Bernhardt traveling the ancient pilgrim route was the forming of new relationships with his fellow travelers, a loosely bound group of folks from different countries he met on the very first day he began.

Bettering Society through Business

One part of Bernhardt’s interest in supporting the greater community can be found in his work as host of “Profiles in Success,” a long-running podcast and book series in which he has spoken with many company founders and executives known for their work beyond business, and who, like him, have made it a priority to help others in a variety of avenues.

He launched the book series as a way to oppose the damaging, greedy images of corporate executives found in the news and Hollywood, ones that never reflected his own experience; he instead aimed to spotlight the inspiring and purpose-driven people he had worked closely with for years, and who had proven to have their community’s well-being at top of mind.

“I created a venue that celebrates business owners and executives who conduct themselves in an ethical fashion to counter some of the negativity found elsewhere,” Bernhardt says. Those many interviews have taught him a great deal about the relationship between personal career success and giving back, ultimately assuring that the corporate fraudsters who often make headlines represent only a tiny percentage of leaders. The truth revealed to him that some “make significant contributions to worthy causes as a business strategy such as increased brand awareness tied to certain organizations,” and others enjoy seeing their name associated with meaningful endeavors, but Bernhardt has discovered another reason: “a genuine desire to give back or pay it forward.”

From the more than 600 Washington, DC, area-based businesspeople he’s interviewed, he has discovered that at their core, these successful leaders are defined by their humanity, the lessons they’ve learned from their struggles, and their desire to share that knowledge to guide others in reaching their potential.

“Business leaders want to help because they are by nature problem-solvers, and caring is an essential trait for business success,” he says. “Not all of them can help move the needle on worldwide problems. But the vast majority are making significant contributions to help countless worthwhile programs throughout their communities, and their support is making a world of difference to those organizations.”

A Champion for Third-Year Students

Like those he has interviewed for his podcast and book series, Bernhardt himself has long been a difference maker to many, as evidenced by his lengthy history of giving his time and financial support to the Commerce School.

As a transfer student who came to UVA and McIntire from Chadron State College, a smaller Nebraska school, he was galvanized to fund a scholarship designated specifically for transfer students. Bernhardt points to community and cost as the two issues that were the impetus and inspiration for the creation and continued commitment to the Gordon J. Bernhardt Scholarship he established.

“Having grown up in a small, agricultural community, I felt compelled to stay closer to home and attend a more affordable state school when starting my academic career,” he says. Chadron State College proved to ease the adjustment to both the rigors and costs of higher education. But when the time came for him to transfer to UVA, settling in proved challenging as he navigated a lack of community among transfer students—a notably different atmosphere than what was to be found among the already adjusted Hoos starting their third year. “After two years at UVA, most McIntire students had their tribe of friends, whether through fraternities or clubs or housing arrangements. Transfer students had to find their tribe while adjusting to the demands of McIntire’s rigorous academic environment. Fortunately, I was able to quickly make friends and build my own community. But I always remembered the difficulties that transfer students felt in making that adjustment,” he says.

Regarding the cost, or specifically, the price of attending a leading university, Bernhardt says that the opportunities to afford college are increasingly limited for students who are from rural locations like he was—and beyond. And though he says the situation is driving enrollment at local community colleges before students transfer to four-year schools, a strategy he encourages as a Wealth Manager, he finds that some students are missing out when they need not.

“I know that there are a lot of intelligent, hard-working young people from around the country who could thrive at UVA, just as I did,” he says. “I don’t want those young people to give up on furthering their education or miss out on the kind of opportunities I experienced,” he insists, referencing the “innovative programs, unparalleled access to businesses and community partnership, and world-class alumni networks” that McIntire and the University are known for offering.

Remembering the additional issues transfer students face (“especially those coming from a place like rural Nebraska”), Bernhardt says that his scholarship is one means of supporting transfer students with financial assistance that “also hopefully allows them to find their tribe even faster.”

A Lasting Legacy of Impact

As a McIntire Cornerstone Society Board member, Bernhardt has provided a significant amount of insight to the Commerce School community through his generosity. As a wealth manager, he notes his depth of experience talking with clients about estate planning matters that, in addition to caring for their families, are also focused on philanthropy to support causes and organizations’ missions in the present and for the future. Regarding his time on the Cornerstone Society Board, he has lent his expertise to “the judicious and strategic decisions donors make around their gifting.”

He explains that while financial benefits such as reducing a tax bill may prompt some to give, saving money has never been an incentive for Bernhardt.

“It’s about making an impact, and that’s why I have always given to the McIntire School of Commerce,” he says. “My experience on the board has afforded me the ability to see the difference my contributions make. I hope the students who benefit from my giving will focus on what is most important amidst our chaotic world and decide to pass along some of their good fortune to the generations that follow them. Perhaps they will even consider the role this School has played in their achievements and offer support to say thank you.”

Bernhardt says that our actions, not our intentions, define our lives. As such, it’s clear that his gifts to McIntire have provided a vehicle for Bernhardt to openly live his values to the greatest extent.

The philosophy behind that approach can be traced to something he witnessed as an eight-year-old.

“One hot summer evening, my father and I were heading home after working all day in the fields, when we were waved down by a man in a pickup truck,” Bernhardt recalls, explaining that the man needed money to replace a damaged chainsaw he used to cut cedar trees that he fashioned into fence posts he sold to local farmers and ranchers. “He promised to give my father a great deal on posts if he could help. We didn’t have much then, so I could hardly believe my eyes when my father reached for his wallet and pulled out some bills. It was a life-defining moment.”

Yet Bernhardt believes that it wasn’t only this moment that reinforced his enduring commitment to giving, a dedication reflected in the establishment of his scholarship and that also perfectly aligns with his values.

“I saw it in my parents every week they donated to their local church when I didn’t think they could afford to do so. My parents didn’t say it, but they demonstrated their belief that we are all a community of individuals trying to live our lives the best we can—and eventually we will all need a little help,” he says. “From then on, philanthropy and helping others have been a big part of my life.”

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