May 20, 2005 07:00 AM

It pays to have “book smarts”: Donald Trump selected real-estate broker Kendra Todd, a graduate of the University of Florida, to join his team as the first female he’s hired on The Apprentice, which aired its live third-season finale Thursday night.

But the winner – who follows Bill Rancic and Kelly Perdew as Trump’s picks on the NBC reality show – doesn’t see her victory as being a gender issue.

“It just goes to show that the best person wins,” Kendra tells PEOPLE. “It can be male or female. Either way, I felt like a winner. … I’m honored. My strategy was to be classy, have integrity, be honest, be a team player and be a hard worker.”

Kendra, 27, edged out Tana Goertz, 37, a cosmetics salesperson from Iowa, who faced an uphill battle throughout the windup, with Trump criticizing her for having made fun of her own team. This left Tana defensive from the word go. (One revelation: Tana came up with the shape of the winning automotive brochure that Kendra had stayed up all night to design. The Pontiac Solstice they were selling was also part of Kendra’s prize.)

And while Trump said he hated the fact that Kendra burst into tears at one point in the game, he also admitted that he was touched by the genuine feeling she had for her Magna team – the college-educated group pitted against the “street smart” high-school grad Net Worth team.

Kendra now has a $250,000-a-year job with the Trump Organization, for which she’ll help supervise the restoration of an 11-bedroom Palm Beach mansion slated to go on the market.

“For me, it was a no-brainer,” Kendra tells PEOPLE of picking this project over the other choice, overseeing the Miss Universe pageant. “I’m in real estate in Palm Beach County. There was more experience and potential for me in that job.”

And the crying episode? “There’s nothing soft about me,” she insists. “I’m as tough as they come. But I’m human. I have an emotional side. It was a moment of personal victory.”

Tana, on the other hand, took her defeat philosophically, telling PEOPLE: “I feel amazingly relieved. I said a prayer this morning, and I said, ‘If this was meant to be for me and my family, give it to me, God. If not, don’t give it to me. Do with me what you want.'”

Explained Trump of his telling Kendra “You’re hired!”: “I really love the fact that her team loved her. I made my decision within the last 15 minutes. I don’t mind aggression in men or women, but I found Tana’s (admission of her input into the Pontiac brochure) to be a little obnoxious.”

Chimed in executive producer Mark Burnett: “Tana is a great salesperson, but I don’t think she’s the strongest leader.”

Despite a slippage in the show’s ratings for this season, there will be The Apprentice 4 on Thursdays in the fall, and with it, another Apprentice, airing Wednesdays, and starring Martha Stewart.

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