The winners of The Independent and Durham Business School's MBA scholarship competition talk to Peter Brown about what drives them in life and business

This year looks like being a good one for Diana Fuentes a corporate credit analyst with Banamex-Citigroup in Mexico. First she will travel from her native Mexico City to Britain to marry her fiancé Ignatio Gallo, a scientist working in Newcastle. Then she will take up her full-time place nearby on the Durham Business School MBA course.

Fuentes, 25, is one of three winners of the Durham MBA/Independent Newspaper Scholarship competition jointly run by the school and this newspaper. The other winners are Martin Hrezo, 29, a divisional manager for a Slovakian company, and Joanna Elliott, 30, a marketing controller, from Newcastle.

All the candidates were asked to explain in writing why they thought they had the leadership qualities to warrant a place on the prestigious course. "The aim of the competition was to attract exceptional applicants who would benefit from, and contribute to, a Durham MBA," says Dr Gioia Pescetto, associate dean of Durham Business School. "It also allowed us to effectively communicate the value of an MBA and the distinctiveness of the school."

Fuentes, who has won a full-time scholarship, works 12 hours a day, handling the portfolios of some big multinationals, including Nestlé, Unilever and P&G. She is also the main analyst for the power industry portfolio. Before that she completed a BA in financial management.

She has a particular interest in helping poor communities and has created, organised and trained community teenage groups. She points to that work as something that helped her develop her own teamwork and people management skills.

In her application she said that Citigroup's multinational teamwork had allowed her a glimpse of other cultures' work styles and improved her negotiation skills. "I aspire to go beyond analysis towards the creation and deployment of social entrepreneurial business and economic sustainable projects in poverty-stricken communities," she wrote. A visit to some poor communities in Mexico when she was in her teens left a big impression on her, she wrote. "They have nothing, these people. It was a shock. There's the potential to improve, but they want to do it by themselves. It's a different vision of business.

Fuentes says she is really excited and proud to have won the scholarship. "It's an excellent course," she says. The Durham MBA is her chance to make a strong contribution not only to the course but also to her country, she explains.

Fuentes rates sport high on her list of favourite activities. She jogs, swims, bikes and, in particular, likes contemporary dance.

Another sports enthusiast is Hrezo, who wins the distance-learning scholarship. In his younger days he played professional tennis. "It was my day-to-day activity for 17 years. And those were beautiful years. I have travelled half of the world, have many friends and the sport taught me some things that are important also for business: dedication, strong will, hard work and responsibility for your own results."

"I'm so happy to have the chance to enhance my business and managerial education at one of the best schools on the world," he says. "But I also feel a responsibility to prove that the scholarship was given to the right person."

For Hrezo the chance comes at a perfect time in his career. Having trained as an accountant he is, at 29, the youngest divisional head in VSE, a Slovakian electricity distribution company, where he manages 500 people. It's vital work. "The division I am responsible for takes care mainly of construction, repair and maintenance of the electricity distribution grid," he says. More than that, he is supervising the restructuring of the division and its subsequent spin-off.

"This huge project is exactly what I always really wanted to do - to manage people, prepare a new organisational structure, set up more effective processes and implement new internal controls and cost-cutting procedures," he said in his application for the scholarship.

Slovakia is still considered to be an emerging market in Europe and there is a lot of direct investment from abroad, attracted by low labour costs and high levels of skill and education, he says. "The business environment has changed dramatically since 1989. We have moved from a centrally organised economy to a free market and customer orientation."

Joanna Elliot of Newcastle, who has won the part-time scholarship, told the judges that as a small girl, growing up in Poland, she had a quotation by John F. Kennedy pinned on the wall above her desk: "Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other."

Her theory is that influence comes as the result of hard work - not as an accident of birth. "I believe that everyone is born with potential," she says. "People only succeed by making the most of it."

She sees the award as a great honour. "I was incredibly excited," she says. "Both the university and the course are internationally recognised - something particularly attractive to someone who arrived in the North-east from Poland. This award removes any concerns I had about the cost, although the effort I am going to have to invest is still a bit scary."

Three years ago Elliott moved from a billion-dollar organisation with bases in Warsaw, Paris, Frankfurt and London to a medium-sized business in the North-east to work on the Tommee Tippee baby-feeding brand. "I have fallen in love with it," she says. "The people I work with are great. They are very hard working, dedicated and talented but also very human and fun to be with. I have got a team of eight and have learned a lot from them.

"The brand is constantly innovating and everything we do is developed and researched with consumers and health professionals. Tommee Tippee has been famous for cups and bowls, breast-feeding products and also for the innovative Nappy Wrapper.

"I am very driven and passionate about what I am doing and what I like most is not only the great brand but the environment and the culture of the company."

Durham was looking for individuals of high academic ability, significant managerial experience and leadership potential, according to Pescetto. "We received a large number of applications from excellent candidates to all delivery modes, full-time, part-time and distance learning," he says.

Short-listing was difficult because the panel was very impressed with the calibre of applicants. "It certainly was a tremendously successful campaign that surpassed our expectations," says Pescetto. "We are looking forward to welcoming the winners to the school."