The story of Helen Galloway is a story of bravery, of perseverance, and of overcoming every obstacle that was in her way – to become one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in all of Wichita. Her story begins with her father, who was a cattle farmer who emigrated to America in the early 1900s and raised a family of 9 children.
From a young age, Helen possessed an entrepreneurial spirit, which was encouraged by her parents and siblings alike. She sought to further increase her business acumen by attending Colorado Women's’ College, after which she returned to Wichita. And in 1973, after she had recently become divorced from her first husband, she took a giant leap of faith, and opened up The First Place, with her sister Donna Jabara Baker.
Despite criticism about the location from their brother, Fran Jabara – a businessman and the eventual founder of the Wichita State Center for Entrepreneurship – the sisters rented a small storefront located at 6821 E. Kellogg in Wichita.
They began selling jewelry, gifts, and other fine goods. But Helen quickly ran into a problem; the overwhelming difficulty of doing business in the male-dominated jewelry industry. Despite the fact that most jewelry was purchased and worn by women – a fact which did not escape Helen when she launched her business – the industry itself was overwhelmingly composed of men. At this time, 99% of jewelry buyers were men, and Helen quickly realized that it was going to be difficult to be taken seriously in such a “boy’s club.”
Despite being able to provide proof of her financial status and ability to buy jewelry wholesale, she was often turned down, and salesmen would not take her seriously. Today, she still signs her checks with only her initials – a habit she developed when trying to hide her gender in her early years of working in the male-dominated jewelry industry.
But despite these early difficulties, Helen and Donna’s dedication to personalized customer service, a fun and comfortable shopping experience, and sourcing the best jewelry and gifts from around the world began to pay off. Within four months, the business turned its first profit – and it continued to grow in the intervening years. Soon thereafter, Helen met her second husband, Jay, who she married in 1976.
The First Place continued to grow over the coming years. People from all over Wichita and the surrounding regions would visit the store, and the huge selection of hard-to-find jewelry and gifts made it a top destination for shoppers from all throughout Kansas.
Thanks to the continued support of her customers, from both near and far, The First Place eventually became too large for the small, 1,200 square foot storefront in Eastridge, and moved to a larger retail space in 2001, located on North Rock Road.
But Helen Galloway’s success has never gotten to her head, and she has remained generous and kind-hearted – regularly donating to and becoming involved with dozens of charitable organizations around Wichita, including the Music Theatre of Wichita, American Heart Association, and many more.
But her contributions are not limited to making donations to other charitable organizations in Wichita. Inspired by her difficulties as a young, female entrepreneur, and her desire to make a change in the city she loved, and show others everything that it has to offer, she founded the Women of Wichita Charitable Foundation Inc, (WOW).
Founded in 2000, this foundation is open to any woman in Wichita who contributes $1,000 per year, and it now consists of more than 80 members, who have donated more than $1 million to charities all throughout the region. For her efforts with WOW and her other charitable activities, Helen was named as the Wichita Chamber of Commerce “Uncommon Citizen of the Year” in 2012.
Despite her high public profile, Helen Galloway remains modest and prefers to use her time and resources to help others, rather than attract publicity or press coverage. As soon as you walk into The First Place and meet Helen, you’ll see her bright smile, and feel her generous heart and giving spirit. She truly cares about each and every person who walks through her door.
Today, Helen has passed some of her responsibilities to her daughter, Buffy, though she still comes into the store every day. If you visit the First Place, you’ll experience the same welcoming atmosphere, dedication to customer service, and fantastic selection of products that have been the trademark of the store since it was founded in 1973.