Second Acts: Jovana Balaban

An entrepreneur from Serbia makes a safe landing on Martha’s Vineyard.


How does a young woman from a landlocked Eastern European country, educated to become a literature and language teacher, end up a serial entrepreneur on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard? Jovana Balaban’s story is not only a second act, but in a second language, on a second continent.

She begins, “It’s a long story,” and adds, “I know I have accents, so if you need me to repeat something you don’t understand, feel free to ask.” (If only we were all as expressive as Jovana.) Born and raised in Serbia — once part of Yugoslavia — surrounded by Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia — Jovana went to college there to become a professor of language. “I’d studied teaching for a couple of years, but I realized it wasn’t for me … I didn’t see myself as a person that can — how can I put it — ‘transition knowledge,’ share knowledge or teach others in a classroom.”

What she couldn’t do took her to what she could: “I’m a very curious person. That drew me into literature, reading, and learning, and I think curiosity got me into business.”

But first, her curiosity led to travel. In 2016, she began with a ski trip to Colorado, and over the years to the East Coast of the U.S., down to Georgia, Florida, then Central America, west to California, Hawaii, and Arizona. “Then I met some friends who were coming for the summer to the Vineyard. And the first time I came here, I was like, ‘This is it,’ this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.” She says, “Martha’s Vineyard had something special; it reminded me of my home, it was really welcoming and quiet, and had a community that was really warm.” She came for summers, working seasonal jobs — babysitting, cleaning, restaurant work (her first job was at Lola’s in Oak Bluffs). “And then I met my husband, and decided to stay year-round.” Her husband Bojan is also from Serbia and Croatia, but they each had to travel around the globe to find each other on the Vineyard.

Staying on the Vineyard meant finding real work. At that time, 2019, the work was always for other people, in their businesses, for their customers, and that got her thinking … ”The more that I do this kind of work, the more I’m looking for spots and chances to improve something — a need.”

While cleaning houses, Jovana saw an opportunity. She met a homeowner who had a renter coming, but her cleaner didn’t show up: “I understood it’s hard for people who are renting out their home to find cleaning crews who are reliable and will show up every single time.” There was a need, and she and Bojan filled it with Green Clean. Their cleaning business also responded to another marketplace need, environmental responsibility. “My husband had a background in environmental protection, and we wanted to have a service that is nontoxic, not just for the environment and guests and families, but also for our employees … not using excessive bleach, often cleaning with homemade products with lemon vinegar, baking soda recipes that our grandmas use … and instead of paper towels, reusable microfiber cloths.”

But Jovana was just getting started.: “In life and in business, I always look forward. I see a problem that people have.” She saw that what slows down the house-cleaning process is that crews have to do the laundry at each home, because they don’t have fresh linen already available. “So my husband had the idea to start Martha’s Vineyard Linen and Rentals, which he runs … delivering clean sheets and towels during the turnover process.” What began as a service for their own house-cleaning clients spread to housekeeping services all over the Island. And the linens they rent are cleaned using environmentally friendly methods.

Of course, Jovana kept being curious, and kept seeing needs. “I’m coming from Europe, and I felt welcomed here. A lot of people recommended me to their clients, and I wanted to say thank you … but you don’t know what to give as a gift.” Martha’s Vineyard Baskets was born. “I figured out that a lot of clients are renting their properties for tens of thousands of dollars a week, but not welcoming guests with anything. I thought it would be nice if they had welcome baskets for their guests, to enhance and elevate the guest experience.” M.V. Baskets was her answer. Jovana gathered high-quality products to promote to visitors.“We have M.V. Sea Salt, Island Bee Honey, Ben and Bill’s sweets, East to West Coffee, M.V. Salads, Gay Head Coffee, Scottish Bakehouse products, State Road chocolate, Cut Paper Island towels, Barbara Reynolds’ photo cards, items from small makers across the Island and from around the entire country that are unique.”

The baskets create better relationships with guests, and for the makers it’s good exposure, a win-win. The business expanded from rental-hosting gifts to weddings, holidays, and events. Like Green Clean, M.V. Baskets does its part to be environmentally conscious: “I discovered a company called One Tree Planted, where you can donate part of the business income and plant trees.” Initially, Jovana thought, “it’s going to be just side income, but it turned out that it can be a whole business.”

It seems each company she and Bojan create fills a need and leads to the next venture. (Sounds like an Island-size version of what that guy named Bezos did with something called Amazon — filling unmet customer needs.) Today the business that started it all, the cleaning service, has a steady list of loyal clients, perhaps 30 homes, but the linen rental business has boomed to thousands of transactions, houses all over the Island turning over weekly, all summer, and the gift basket business will make almost a thousand baskets a year, nearly half now sent off-Island.

And the mini-empire is a true partnership. “We’ve done pretty much everything together. We were young when we started, so it had our personal ups and downs, and we have a lot of differences, and we’re using those differences as our advantage. I think anything is possible. He is really organized, really realistic. I have a wider vision. Sometimes my vision is too wide. He’s more down to earth, really good at delegating and recognizing people’s talents. I’m creative, more of an out-of-the-box thinker. It’s a story about the two of us. That’s beautiful.”

It is a beautiful story. Why did it happen here and not in Serbia? Or Colorado, or Florida, or California? Jovana has two thoughts: safety and silence. “I felt very welcomed and very safe here. When you feel safe somewhere, you’re more willing to experiment, and you’re more willing to step into entrepreneurship if you feel supported, so you’re more likely to do risky stuff. On the Vineyard, you can meet the people behind the small businesses and see they’re real people, just like you, and you think, Why wouldn’t I be able to do it as well?” So what does she mean by silence? “Martha Vineyard is a calm, serene place that gives you a lot of time to think, especially in the winter; time to work on your projects, to work on yourself. I see that in comparison with people who live in a city and who are stuck in traffic or in crowds, and everything is so loud. The Vineyard gives you that quietness and time, the opportunity to be more aware.” And one thing Jovana is, very much, is “a huge believer in paying it forward, in sharing with others and giving back,” helping the next person with the next idea to take a chance to see where it leads. That’s the woman from Serbia who became a Vineyard entrepreneur’s formula for success.

Oh, and one more thing. Jovana stays curious, always wanting to find out what other people are thinking. At the end of this interview, she turned the tables and asked me, the writer, what makes people discover their “other selves” here. I had to think back to see if there was a pattern. “Yes,” I said, “it is the safety of Martha’s Vineyard. Not just the physical safety but the emotional safety. You’re safe here. You can try things. Like writing a column on second acts.”