Finding Purpose and a Seat at The Table

Tommy Bardenwerper Alumni Spotlight

Tommy Bardenwerper wanted a life of purpose and connection. To find it, he’s undertaken a journey that includes the Gatton College of Business and Economics, several top investment banks, the U.S Marine Corps, and now The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. 

Ultimately, his time serving in the U.S. Marine Corps forged a deeper sense of maturity, decisiveness, and the ability to effectively deal with stressful situations — all characteristics that he’ll continue to bring to his career in investment banking. “Service members regularly operate under immense pressure, making stressful situations in the corporate world feel like a walk in the park,” Bardenwerper explained. “Most people don’t enjoy working with people who are constantly visibly stressed out and, in my experience, veterans are skilled at keeping their emotions in check.” 


The Louisville, Kentucky native initially considered attending the University of Virginia, his father’s alma mater, or the University of Wisconsin. However, another family member — his brother — influenced the young man’s undergraduate college decision. “When my brother, who is a year older than me, decided to attend UK and join the Global Scholars Program, it completely changed my perspective on the kind of students who stay in-state to go to UK,” Bardenwerper explained. “I always saw my brother as a better, more serious 

student than me, so that was a major influence on my decision to attend UK.” 

Bardenwerper’s time at Gatton was a whirlwind of activities. He engaged in Delta Tau Delta Executive Board, contributed to the Miss UK Pageant Planning Committee, interned at the UK Athletics Marketing Department, studied abroad at Manchester Business School, and participated in the Finance Society.

He graduated in December 2015, but took a while to discover his interest in investment banking. “Throughout that fall 2014 semester, I basically cold-emailed anyone in the industry I could make a loose connection with and spent approximately 15 hours a week on calls networking,” he remembered. “I would just pick peoples’ brains so I could get more comfortable talking to people about investment banking, and if things progressed to an interview, great. If not, I was more well prepared for the next conversation.” 

Bardenwerper connected with UK alumni Jason Holsclaw, a vice president with Stephens, a family-owned financial services firm. “I bugged Jason every few weeks, letting him know I would come to Little Rock to interview on my own dime,” Bardenwerper said. “In March Jason finally let me know they were creating a summer position for me.” 


With a bachelor’s degree in Finance, Marketing and International Business in hand, Bardenwerper accepted a full-time position at Stephens in 2016. A year later, he realized he was missing a sense of purpose. Thinking about moving to a new city and working with a new team would remedy that feeling, he took the jump, left Stephens and moved to San Francisco. There he joined JMP Securities in 2017. Even still, the purposeless feeling lingered. 

ISIS’s reign in Syria and Iraq promptly made Bardenwerper think about how he could make a more important contribution, and he began thinking about Stephens’ Managing Director Kevin Eckert, a Marine Corps veteran. “He was just an extremely humble, natural leader who put others before himself,” Bardenwerper said, adding that it was Eckert who influenced his next move — joining the U.S. Marine Corps. 

In November 2019, Bardenwerper graduated from Marine Corps officer School after 15 months and was assigned to Camp Pendleton as a platoon commander. Soon he faced major challenges to his leadership. “During the first mandatory training exercise I organized, six new marines decided to not show up, later asserting they didn’t need the practice,” Bardenwerper remembered. “What these marines didn’t consider was that professional proficiency isn’t about the output of the individual, but rather the output of the team. It was clear our platoon’s differences were creating discordance.” 

In response, Bardenwerper organized a week of strenuous pool exercises, many of which were team-based, forcing the squad to succeed or fail together. “For the highlight of the training, we went as a platoon to a nearby beach,” he recounted. “I asked each marine to take the rank off his own uniform, throw it in the ocean, and pin on a new set of rank insignias, to set the tone that everyone was starting fresh. Then, each of the 45 marines shared a personal story. When we left the beach that day, I felt that we truly had a team.” 

Eventually, Bardenwerper was deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational military intervention against ISIS. He was primarily stationed in Union III inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, where he carried two key assignments: route reconnaissance and personal security detail during the day and quick reaction manager during the night when the camp was attacked. 


While in Baghdad, Bardenwerper started to consider his future once again, and committed to studying for the GRE, with his next steps looking to graduate school. “During my first week, I set out to construct a corner to study in my 100-square-foot bedroom, which was nestled into the side of a shipping container and had an AC unit that was no match for the 120-degree desert heat, proving to be dodgy at best,” he said, adding that he paid $250 a month for Wi-Fi that was fast enough to run the virtually monitored proctored exam. 

After applying to 15 MBA programs, Bardenwerper enrolled in The Wharton School. This past summer, he interned with the investment bank Moelis as an industry generalist, which resulted in a full-time job offer from the first when he graduates in 2024. 

Bardenwerper also remains a strong advocate for Gatton and is continuing to help build the school’s recruiting pipeline across the investment banking industry. “In my experience, Gatton students consistently exceed expectations in investment banking,” he said. “The hardest part is breaking down the walls and getting a seat at the table.”