Skip to content Skip to Programs Navigation

News & Stories

From Singapore to Chapel Hill, using her voice to build community

Farisha Ishak

Before she finished college, Farisha Ishak (MBA ’24) already was a successful singer, songwriter and recording artist.

She found fame as the first woman in Singapore to win the national English-singing competition, “The Final 1” –  the “American Idol” equivalent – earning a cash prize and a record deal with Hype Records.

After her win, Ishak took a two-year leave of absence from the National University of Singapore (NUS) to pursue her career in music and the arts. That included releasing an album, recording nine original songs, performing at national televised events, acting in TV dramas and hosting live events.

“One of my most memorable experiences was singing the national anthem at the 2016 Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix,” she says.

Farisha IshakIshak used her platform to engage in social and political issues affecting Singapore’s youth, minorities, and young women and girls. The Singapore government recognized her as a community youth leader and she went on to advise government agencies and community organizations on youth outreach and engagement, social media and women’s development policies.

After undergrad, Ishak worked as an operations manager at a global market research firm, Bare International, and as a program manager at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Asia’s top policy institution. She developed executive programs on public policy, building government professionals’ capacity and broadening executives’ policy knowledge.These experiences shaped her passion for innovation and impact and cemented her belief in collaborative work at the intersection of business and policy.

Family ties

Farisha Ishak

A first-generation college student, Ishak earned her BA with honors in global studies from NUS. That’s where she met her future husband, Connor Cooke (BSBA ’18, MBA ’24), who was on a semester exchange program through UNC.

Amid the pandemic in 2020, they said their “I dos” in a Zoom ceremony with loved ones watching. “It was a whole thing even to sign the papers,” says Ishak. “The officiant was on Zoom and my sister had to run around with her phone to show proof of our signatures. It was surreal.”

The newlyweds created a life for themselves in Singapore in the most uncertain of times. And like many during the pandemic, they got restless and contemplated a big move.

“I was at a crossroads with my public-sector career and looking for something different,” she says. “Connor was contemplating a career change and missing home, so it was a good time to move stateside.”

After reflection and talking with her mentor, she applied to MBA programs in the U.S. “Connor applied to UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Full-Time MBA Program and convinced me an MBA was the right choice and UNC was the obvious choice!”

Making the most of every minute

Ishak made the most of her time – her mark – at UNC Kenan-Flagler. She served as president of Carolina Women in Business (CWIB), the largest MBA club; a STAR (Student Teams Achieving Results), STAR project leader and ambassador; a Business Communications Center (BCC) consultant; and a VP with the Net Impact Club and Carolina Disability Alliance.

CWIB photoWhat stands out most about Ishak’s experience at UNC Kenan-Flagler is her tenure leading CWIB. She and the board broadened its reach by uniting women across different programs on campus and embracing inclusivity for minorities and international students to create a stronger, more diverse community. They also worked closely with 100 Women, strengthening alumni relations and contributing to building a pipeline of impressive women leaders.

After she learned the language of business and honed her skills, she mentored other students as a BCC consultant, advising on writing, presentations, resumes and cover letters and networking.

Farisha Ishak with STAR Team“I learned to communicate in a way that is accessible and easy to understand. Coming from the public sector, you want to provide context to everything, but in business, it’s different,” says Ishak. “You need context, but it’s more about, ‘Tell this to me in about 30 seconds and in a way that I understand.’ It took a lot of unlearning and relearning for me. This is possibly the easiest way to communicate to a wide and diverse group of people, and I made a transformational shift in how I started to view and communicate things.”

She created something, too: She founded and served as co-president of Muslims at UNC Kenan-Flagler. “I feel strongly about representation and building a sense of community and belonging at the School. I felt it most during Ramadan in 2023 and saw the need for a club. I was very excited to see the positive responses – both from our members and the wider MBA class. We hosted a Fast-A-Thon where our non-Muslim friends committed to a day of fasting with us, culminating in a big feast for iftar. We expected 15 sign-ups for the event but ended up with over 70 people!”

Her efforts earned multiple awards: Outstanding Diversity Club President, recognizing her work with CWIB and Muslims at Kenan-Flagler; the Core Value Award for Inclusion; and the Susanna Schick Memorial Award from Net Impact and the Ackerman Center for Excellence in Sustainability. Poets & Quants selected her as one of the Best & Brightest MBAs from the Class of 2024.

Career exploration

“UNC Kenan-Flagler’s robust consulting curriculum and dedicated resources were key factors that drew me to the School,” she says. Through her STAR project she also learned about marketing and brand management, and got excited about the prospect of infusing her creative passions with business.

Farisha Ishak After exposure to consulting and marketing, Ishak felt empowered during recruiting. She had first-hand experiences to share, understood different roles and knew where she could make a difference. “It opened my mind to the vast opportunities available in the business world. For someone with a non-traditional career path, the MBA made me feel like there was a place for me in business.” Ishak says.

Ishak also explored entrepreneurship. She interned at The Launch Place, a local impact fund, through UNC Kenan-Flagler’s VC/Angel Intern Program, and co-founded an AI-enhanced team-building platform with classmates.

“Being at UNC Kenan Flagler was pivotal for me in this transition because the community is strong and small. I felt I had all the support I needed – from faculty, staff, alumni and my classmates. Everyone genuinely wants to see others succeed, and it is infectious,” she says.

Ishak secured a summer internship in marketing at Haleon, formerly GSK Consumer Healthcare, and worked on a social acceleration strategy for Centrum, its global leading multivitamin, and then accepted a full-time role as an associate brand manager.

Never-ending commitment

Ishak uses her platform to share her MBA experience at UNC Kenan-Flagler. “I’m the only Singaporean in the program,” she says. “It’ll be great to see more representation from Singapore and Southeast Asia.”

Her music roots remain strong. Before the couple had furniture in their Chapel Hill apartment, she bought a red keyboard. “That was our first purchase, which tells you how important music is for me,” she says. She performed her original song “Life is Beautiful” at a hallmark event where MBA legacies vie for the title of Songfest Legacy Champion. The original performance propelled her legacy to victory and an encore performance.

Farisha Ishak Making music is symbolic of her approach to her business school journey and everything she does: She always aims for that crescendo.

“As we rise up,” says Ishak, “we bring others with us, and I think that’s why UNC really means so much to me. It’s the Carolina way.”