In Depth

Hot List: Erin Burnett

“Squawk on the Street” co-anchor, “Street Signs” anchor

Bright, ambitious people who want to find success might do well to follow Erin Burnett’s lead to the letter.

As a kid in Maryland, it never occurred to her not to fire off a letter to someone whose work she admired, whether it was children’s book author Susan Cooper, heavy-duty journalist Hedrick Smith or Willow Bay, the supermodel-turned-journalist and wife of media mogul Bob Iger.

They all wrote back; she still has the letters.

That “Why not?” attitude and serendipity are hallmarks of a career path that might have led Ms. Burnett into law like her father, but instead led her to CNBC, where her star is on the rise.

Along the way, stops included a summer with the U.S. Forestry Service in Alaska and the Council on Economic Priorities, on grants she won.

At the end of her stay at Williams College, where she studied political science and economics, she took the advice of the career counseling office and participated in recruiting interviews that netted her a couple of offers. She took the job with Goldman Sachs.

Near the end of her two-year analyst program, she wrote a fateful “stalker letter” to Ms. Bay, who at the time was working for CNN’s “Moneyline” and CNNfn.

It may seem unlikely to those who’ve watched her at CNBC, including the bloggers and gossip page writers who have cast her as the “Street Sweetie” competing with Maria Bartiromo’s “Money Honey,” but “TV wasn’t love at first sight for me,” Ms. Burnett said.

As much as she learned about the basics of the TV news business by booking and writing, Ms. Bay’s move from New York to L.A. forced Ms. Burnett to be bicoastal. She found CNNfn “was not a very happy place at that time. They were always about to pull the plug.” Which they did.

Moreover, “Moneyline” was too scripted for her liking.

As she looked at “absolutely everything” in considering her next move, everything pointed back to business.

Along came Citigroup, which named her VP for its financial news Web site, CitiMedia. Once again, “I thought why not give it a shot,” she said. “I got to do the business side and then I went and did the interviews. It was amazing practice. It was from that I decided I really wanted to be in TV.”

A thorough Google search took her to Bloomberg Television in 2003, when she began anchoring “Bloomberg on the Markets” and “In Focus,” dedicated to the day’s top business story.

Once again, the combination of serendipity and initiative produced a defining moment.

Charlie Rose’s talk show studio is in the Bloomberg headquarters building. When she heard that then-NBC Chairman Bob Wright had arrived to do an interview with Mr. Rose, “I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to go and get Bob Wright.’ He came on. He took [a copy of her interview] back to NBC.” He dispatched it internally with the message, “You should call this person.”

Coincidentally, she said, “NBC had already called.”

In 2005, she made her debut on “Squawk,” without burning her bridges at Bloomberg.

Bloomberg News Editor in Chief Matt Winkler wrote a recommendation supporting her application to join the Council on Foreign Relations, which welcomed her recently. NBC News’ Brian Williams and Andrea Mitchell also are members.

It’s a membership that fits perfectly with her interest in the global economy and related stories, which recently paid off for CNBC with the time-slot-winning special “India Rising,” a project she conceived and fought for.

“She really made it happen,” said Jonathan Wald, senior VP, business news, CNBC. “We beat CNN and Fox. That rarely happens on a Sunday night.”

Mr. Wald said Ms. Burnett is smart and energetic and competitive, with an arsenal of tools and traits that can’t be taught. “Part of it is she’s really genuine in liking what she does. That’s thing No. 1. Thing No. 2 is she thinks like a producer, and I think that’s helpful for talent.”

She doesn’t know what lies ahead professionally. “This business is changing so much in terms of what are perceived as the money-making parts of the business, what are perceived as the growth parts of the business, what are perceived as the top jobs in the business. So much is luck,” she said. “There is no one path anymore. In a sense that’s frightening and you think, ‘OK, am I doing the right thing?’ Then you realize there’s absolutely no road map. I figure I’m just going to do things my way. I try to just focus in on what I really love and would like to do more of, or areas I can really grow and expand in.”

For now, “I’m a fish in water. I love it. I love live [TV]. I love the structure I’m in,” she said.