The global business reporter, host of CNBC’s “Street Signs” and co-anchor of “Squawk on the Street,” recently spoke with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about the thrills and chills of her career, the inspiring people she has met along the way, and the power of the pen.
When Erin Burnett’s alarm goes off at 4 o’clock on weekday mornings, she’s not always sure where the next 24 hours will take her. In addition to regular gigs on two popular TV shows that follow Wall Street’s daily market action, she also squeezes in regular appearances on NBC’s “Today” and “Meet the Press” and is a contributor on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Occasionally things get erratic, like the time she was asked to fill in for Meredith Vieira on the “Today” show and found herself running — literally — to catch a flight to Nigeria instead. It was late-December 2009 and the “Underwear Bomber” had attempted, on Christmas Day, to detonate explosives on a Northwest Airlines flight en route from Amsterdam to Detroit. Her producers wanted her to pursue a story on the suspect and his Nigerian roots. “I had previously been in Nigeria filming and had a visa that was still good, so we had an hour to decide and we said let’s just go!” she exclaims. “The [would-be bomber] was a banker’s son, and we went to his family’s house. It’s a fascinating economic, religious and political story. There weren’t any other U.S. TV networks there at the time,” she says, adding that she got her story and made it back to New York City just in time to cover for Vieira a few days later.
A whirlwind trip to Egypt last month, to cover the political uprising, was equally spontaneous, she recalls. “We bought one-way cash tickets to Cairo. All our equipment was in carry-on bags, so we didn’t have to declare anything. That made it easy to get there.”
Erin: My main takeaway was that it was an invigorating moment. To see so many people willing to drop everything—just to have a voice—was stunning. There are some amazing things people are capable of, and I never expected to see that in that part of the world. And never, on a deep level, had I truly appreciated the civil liberties we have in this country.
Opportunist: After that trip, some of your comments about how changes in the Middle East could cause higher energy prices were deemed controversial. Why is that?
Erin: The United States has been very tacit in its support of these regimes for years. It’s a reality. They have enabled us to have a stable, low-cost energy supply. It’s very difficult for our administration to give military aid to Egypt for 30 years and then say, “This guy needs to go.” You can certainly see how it’s a complicated set of mathematics. My impression from being there is that the Egyptian people would say that hypocrisy is very real. There’s a reason these regimes remain in place. Whether we want to change that or not, it’s a good conversation to have.
Opportunist: What are some of your favorite stories from the Middle East?
Erin: Ten years ago I never thought the Middle East would be an area of such personal passion for me. Now I can’t get enough of it. We’ve profiled some amazing women in the region who have overcome hurdles to start businesses. For example, two-thirds of graduate degrees go to women and yet many are not using them. That’s a fascinating point. They have math, science and accounting degrees but they can’t get jobs. One interesting story was some women in Saudi Arabia we met with degrees but no jobs who created a co-op where they sell everything from underwear to food to each other.
After a shoot in Yemen, I spent a couple of days exploring on my own. I found it one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It’s unbelievable that it exists where it exists. Everyone I encountered wanted their picture taken and wanted to see it. A teenage boy approached me and we talked. I was a little wary at first, but I allowed him and his friend to show me around Sana’a. They took me to where the ruling imams used to live. Everyone was singing. It was one of those amazing moments.
Opportunist: I know you said you didn’t feel unsafe while reporting in the Middle East, but were there any other assignments that made you think, Hey, this is dangerous; I could get hurt?
Erin: Yes, when we filmed the pirate story. I’m into ships and find them fascinating—85 to 90 percent of what we buy still comes from ships — and I enjoy following shipping companies. So, I asked to come aboard a ship carrying a million barrels of oil through the Suez Canal. I wanted to approach it like a pirate.
We got on the boat in Port Said, and conditions were pretty rudimentary. There were no life jackets, diesel fuel was leaking in and the smell was overpowering. It was terrible, with 10- to 12-foot seas. We were out for more than an hour when one of the crew guys throws up everywhere. Thankfully, my cameraman didn’t get sick! Then, one of the guys throws down this giant rope thing, which was fastened stories and stories up above us, for me to climb! The boat was bouncing in the air, so I kind of climbed up on the inside. It was an incredible feeling when the rope actually went taut. Everything went completely still after an hour of total hell.
My most frightening experience was in India, where we were doing a story on infrastructure and their horrid roads. Their government lets the private sector build the roads and collect tolls for 20 years. We were profiling companies and headed out to a road site. Cars, bikes, people and cows share the roads with cars and trucks going high-speed head on. We learned that someone had been going to the site the week before and had his arm out the window and it was cut off. I was truly scared. I love to travel, though, and hope to eventually set foot in 100 countries. I’m at 69 right now.
Opportunist: In your travels, what sentiment toward the United States have you encountered?
Erin: Why are we so down on ourselves when other countries aren’t?
I’ve felt better about things here when I go overseas. Airports may be better in some parts of the world, such as Dubai or Beijing, but when you venture out into the cities and look at the rest of the country you see that our country is so wealthy across the board. And there is much more belief in America overseas than America has in itself.
Opportunist: It seems the journalism bug may have bitten you early, even if you didn’t know it at the time. How so?
Erin: I was inspired by Hedrick Smith [Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter and editor at The New York Times] and decided to write him a letter about a book he wrote on Japanese and German ways of doing business. He actually wrote me back a hand-written letter about how he became a journalist. I’ll never forget it. I still have it.
Opportunist: There’s a rumor that your persuasive letter-writing skills also landed you a job on cable TV.
Erin: (Laughs) Yes, when I was an analyst at Goldman Sachs I wrote [then-CNN anchor] Willow Bay what’s considered a “stalker” letter. She was one of my heroes and I wanted to work with her.
Opportunist: As a woman in a man’s world, so to speak, have you encountered any discrimination? Do you believe the “glass ceiling” still exists?
Opportunist: Much has been said about your so-called rivalry with Maria Bartiromo. You’ve even been labeled “Maria 2.0.” What is your take on that?
Erin: Our shows are back to back and we rely on each other for that. We’ve built a symbiotic relationship. People have questioned if there is room for two women. Yes, there can be room for tons of women. We have been able to prove that. We’ve broken some stereotypes.
Opportunist: You’ve interviewed the who’s who in the finance industry and met countless accomplished people in the business, entertainment and political arenas. Who has inspired you the most?
Erin: Hmm, that’s a difficult question. It all depends on which slice of my career you’re looking at. Gosh, Condoleezza Rice? I was in Libya with her. One of the women we profiled in Dubai was very shy and soft-spoken. She had just turned 20. I asked her what college classes she was taking and it was all accounting, math and business. In her little tiny voice she said, “I’m very good at math.” I would be surprised to hear a girl in the United States at that age say she was good in math. That was an inspiring moment for me.
Opportunist: Tell us about Donald Trump and Warren Buffett.
Erin: Warren is an outrageously funny, down-to-earth guy. I run into him at conferences. Last summer we bumped into each other and he told me someone came up with a story about how he and I were together at some party. We laughed about it. He’s just a guy who wants to figure things out. Donald is a real and funny person. When people ask me about him and Jim Cramer, I always say they are exactly the way they are on TV. They don’t put on an act; it’s the real deal. Donald has been supportive and very good to me.
Opportunist: Any advice for other young women who are interested in pursuing what you’ve accomplished?
Erin: When you want to take a risk, take it. I did. Was it because I was young and stupid enough to know that risks were OK — risks I may not have taken five or 10 years later? I don’t know. But when you have those moments, seize them and you’ll find that it’s rewarding.
Opportunist: Can you recommend any up-and-coming publicly traded companies, à la Berkshire Hathaway, Microsoft or Apple, that you believe might make it big? Our readers would love to hear some good leads.
Erin: I’m not allowed to invest in stocks. The only thing I can say, and it’s probably going to annoy you, is anything linked through Facebook, Skype, Zinga. I have no idea whether those social networking valuations are real. These are just names that keep coming up.
Opportunist: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Erin: I honestly do not know the answer to that question. I’m optimistic. A lot of things could happen.
Opportunist: OK. Thank you, Erin, for giving us an hour of your time.
Erin: You’re welcome. I’ve seen what you guys are doing at the Opportunist. It’s very interesting. Good luck with it.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications.