Before Rachel Dooley got her big break, she worked at a law firm while moonlighting as a jewelry designer. Eventually, the late nights paid off and her pieces wound up on the hit television show Gossip Girl.
While this catapulted Rachel’s fashion career, she had to decide between an unpredictable creative path or a stable law career. She went back and forth, but thought, “I’ll regret it if I don’t try.” Her successful jewelry business sent her on a jet-setting trajectory, but she found even glamour can become a grind. When she longed for a change, her analytical side led her back to the legal world, where she was drawn to McKinsey’s innovation and opportunities.
Today, Rachel leads McKinsey Digital’s global legal team. We recently spoke with her about her journey to McKinsey and how she still finds creativity in her work.
Law and jewelry design are very different career paths. What sparked your interest in both?
I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in mechanical engineering, but had that panic moment when I finished about, “What am I supposed to do now?” So, naturally, I got a law degree. [Laughs]
While studying for the bar exam, I needed a way to relax. I’d walk around the Garment District in midtown Manhattan and find places to buy beads and metals. I carried them in a little pouch for whenever I had a free minute to create. It was my version of a fidget spinner.
My experiments with metals and stones evolved into wearable pieces of jewelry. Once I passed the bar and started working as an intellectual property lawyer, jewelry design became a hobby to help me decompress.
How did you go from being a hobbyist jewelry designer to working with the cast of Gossip Girl?
I had friends in the fashion industry who liked what I was making. One was working on Gossip Girl, so I sent him a few necklaces. I got a note back saying, “Please send more, like 40 more.” Eventually, I was making pieces for the show’s main character, played by Blake Lively.
So you were balancing a full-time job as a lawyer and designing jewelry for a popular network TV show?
Yes, and I was spending my lunch breaks—which barely exist at law firms—boxing jewelry. It became so big I wasn’t sleeping much. I thought, “Okay, I can’t do both full-time.” It was one of those moments where I thought, “I’ll regret it if I don’t try,” so, I went down the fashion rabbit hole.
Where did you end up?
I started a business—Gemma Redux—despite having zero experience. The name is Latin—because lawyers love Latin—for “reconstructed gems.”
I quit the law firm and applied to the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Fashion Incubator, a program for emerging designers. CFDA is the premier organization for fashion designers, and I thought it was a total long shot, but I got in! They gave us all studio spaces in the Garment District. It was like a fashion commune that I worked out of for two years.
Soon my pieces were being worn by celebrities like Cameron Diaz, Kristen Bell, Jessica Alba, and others. For seven or eight years, I ran the business and traveled the fashion circuit of New York, Milan, and Paris Fashion Weeks. It was just plain fun.
Did you ever miss your more stable career?
At one point, I came home after three weeks in Milan and Paris, tired and eight and a half months pregnant. I said to my husband, “I think I want to go back to law. I need that kind of intellectual stimulation.” I reached out to a mentor at my old law firm, and he welcomed me back. I worked there for three years until I came to McKinsey.
What made you want to make the switch?
I’d been hearing about McKinsey Analytics—now part of McKinsey Digital—at the law firm, and it sounded years ahead of even the most tech-forward private equity firms. As a tech lawyer, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
Was it a good choice?
Looking back on my career changes, I’ve always followed my creativity. At the firm, the concept of “Make your own McKinsey” absolutely lights me up. I’ve seen it happen for so many colleagues, including myself. You’re not confined to your role. If you have an interest in a totally different area, there’s opportunity to explore that.
I also have support to put my own spin on my work. For example, say I wanted to create a scratch-off game as a fun way to educate clients about legal risk. Or, when my team and I were creating a new method for lawyers to work with agile technology teams, and I also wanted to write a playbook for clients, I got the chance to solve two problems at once. Those kind of fresh takes and expansive solutions are encouraged. I can continue to be creative and be challenged. In that way, it’s a perfect fit.
Final question—do you still create Gemma Redux pieces?
Yes! I give them as gifts, or if I get a special order, I donate 100 percent of the proceeds to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation to support mental health research. Making jewelry still helps me decompress, and I love to be creative with it.