< Back < Back


Profile: Emma Woods

Emma Woods smiling wearing a blue suit jacket and large glasses

Emma Woods (1987, Experimental Psychology)

Emma Woods studied Experimental Psychology, which is where she became fascinated by consumer behaviour patterns, and how they change, before embarking on a marketing career with Unilever. Until recently, Emma was the Chief Executive Officer at wagamama, a business she navigated through the challenge of maintaining momentum through the COVID-19 pandemic, despite her team being furloughed and restaurants shut. She also sits on the board of The GymGroup PLC, a national chain of low cost gyms, which also faced the challenge of closure during the pandemic, but which has emerged strongly since reopening. Emma is now developing her Chair and Non-executive portfolio, alongside which she works with the charity Young Minds championing the mental health support needed for young people. Emma was named Retailers’ Retailer of the Year 2021 by the Management Consultancies Association (MCA). She joined Baroness Amos and Anthony Jenkins for the Univ lecture this year discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected business leadership.

What brought you to Univ?
I remember Univ standing out for its humility (compared to some of its flashier counterparts…mentioning no names…) and a sense of psychological safety when you entered those big wooden doors at the Porter’s Lodge from the High Street.

What are your most treasured memories of Univ?
It has to be the friendships, the sense of belonging. I was lucky enough to be able to end my Univ experience by visiting the chalet which allowed me time to reflect on an incredible three years.

What was the highlight of rowing in the Women’s First Eight?
I was never sporty before Univ but I was rowing with some incredible female athletes (including Roz Savage, Rachel and Ria Oxburgh and Gilla Carstairs) and I think it was the first time I appreciated women can be serious competitors too if they push themselves. I have been passionate about promoting the benefit of fitness for all since then.

How has the pandemic affected business leaders?
The pandemic has been a time of extraordinary business turmoil and consumer change but it has also brought opportunity and I discovered three positive things:
1. We could pivot and innovate-doing bold, new things, much faster than we would have thought possible.
2. We could engage differently and more directly with both customers and teams – weekly huddles and zoom check-ins replaced set-piece monthly Board meetings.
3. A new sense of partnership with all stakeholders (suppliers, landlords, shareholders) has emerged and helped get many businesses, like mine, through some hairy moments.
The challenge for leaders now is to continue to embrace these ways of working, even when we are beyond the crisis.

Emma Woods with Univ friends at the chalet, photo is in black and white

Emma Woods at the chalet

How can companies and organisations champion diversity and inclusion – including female representation – in the workplace, and in leadership positions in particular?
There is enough evidence that diversity (both gender and ethnicity) drives growth, as it creates environments where people can bring their whole selves to work.

Leaders need to be advocates and ensure it’s top of the people agenda. The good news is companies are starting to embrace this, but it’s the one’s that do this whole-heartedly where the talent of the future will want to work. For any young Univ alumni out there – I would just encourage you to be demanding of prospective employers and ensure they properly care about diversity and also your own personal development.

Are there any leaders or mentors who have inspired you?
From my Univ days, Professor Nick Rawlins and Revd Bill Sykes were incredibly kind but inspiring people, whose belief in me allowed me to believe in myself.

Describe Univ in three words
Friendship. Fearless. Fantastic fun…(sorry that’s four!)

This feature was adapted from one first published in Issue 14 of The Martlet; read the full magazine here or explore our back catalogue of Martlets below:

Published: 11 April 2022

Explore Univ on social media
University College Oxford

Contact Univ

If you have any questions or need more information, just ask: