Sunny Hostin

Forbes

Power Women
On Her Own Terms
Heidi Brown, 04.01.09, 06:00 PM EDT
The new executive woman doesn't wear opaque panty hose and doesn't wait around for a promotion.

Asunción "Sunny" Hostin, slim and stylish in a black wrap-around sweater, shows up 30 minutes late for her meeting at an upscale café on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She's unruffled, though, and slides into her seat, runs her fingers through her hair and launches into a hilariously detailed description of what had delayed her: a man dressed as a Cherokee Indian darting in and out of traffic on the West Side Highway.

Cherokees aside, Hostin, the only female managing director in the New York office of the investigative firm Kroll Inc. and a regular commentator on CNN, is great at juggling: She has two young children, a surgeon husband and a septuagenarian assistant who had landed in the hospital with internal bleeding. None of it is stopping her from powering to the top.

She's part of a dynamic new cadre of young female executives who view their careers strategically and don't suffer long in jobs that don't challenge and advance them. More shrewd, they are storming traditionally male-dominated professions.

Many women currently in their 30s and 40s, as well as the rising generation behind them, are accelerating their advancement early by pursuing so-called "line" jobs--where they have profit-and-loss responsibility and their performance is measured objectively.

More than ever before, women have the opportunity to make these choices on their own terms. "There was a time when women were trying to get a toehold any way they could," says Tamara Erickson, an author and expert on the changing workforce. "When a woman took a job, it's because it was available. [Women] now have the luxury to be more strategic and plan careers."

Take Marissa Mayer. The 33-year-old joined Google ( GOOG - news - people ) back when it was just another start-up among start-ups. One of the first 20 employees at the company, she began by writing code--she holds a master's degree in computer science. Ten years on, the "geek" has turned something of a celebrity in the Bay Area--hosting parties, attending public events and looking gorgeous while she does it. She is like many women of her generation: unabashedly feminine yet able to compete with the guys. And she's serious too, making key day-to-day decisions at Google and meeting regularly with the company's founders and CEO.

Sheryl Sandberg is another example. The 39-year-old came to Facebook after six years spent as head of sales at Google. Prior to that, she'd worked under Lawrence Summers in the Treasury Department in the Clinton administration. Her first job after college? McKinsey. Not only has Sandberg made waves by taking the job reporting to 24-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, she's also known in the Valley for hosting all-women's networking events.

Former Oppenheimer analyst Meredith Whitney, 39, who became a star in the finance world after foreseeing the banking crisis, has leveraged her fame to start her own research firm. In 1998, the glamorous Whitney became the youngest analyst at Wachovia ( WB - news - people ) to lead a research group on Wall Street financial institutions.

Despite some progress in engineering and tech, women have hardly penetrated the male clubbiness of Wall Street. In 2008 the federal government estimated that women made up less than one-third (29%) of officers and managers at the country's biggest investment banks.

And much progress remains to be made in corporate America overall: Women hold only 15.7% of corporate officer positions, despite being 46.5% of the workforce.

Even so, it's women like Mayer, Begley, Sandberg and Hostin who are leading the charge.

* * *

The daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and African-American father, Hostin was raised in the South Bronx until she was 8. She began her career intending to become a journalist, but her mother, who'd given birth to Hostin in her teens and encouraged her daughter to be more strategic, advised her to get a law degree as a fall-back plan.

After clerking for a pioneering black judge in Maryland, Hostin spent six years at the Justice Department working on securities fraud and anti-trust cases. She then tried a private law firm but found it unfulfilling.

Today, Hostin is the top-five rainmaker at Kroll, which gathers intelligence and conducts investigations for corporate and government clients. She is a regular on CNN and Fox Business Network.

Although she excels at designing complex investigations that send her researchers from the Cayman Islands to Afghanistan, she's already planning her next move. She's been appearing regularly as a legal expert on CNN, and she's at work on a book that addresses everyday legal concerns for the layperson. She has also taped a pilot of a show she's shopping around. The show would allow viewers to call in and ask questions about their rights under tenant law or how to hire a divorce attorney.

She describes her rise as a combination of luck and preparedness. "Any woman who is successful will admit that you have to prepare for your next move; you always have to be thinking about it."

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