From Schleswig-Holstein and Back Again

8 min read
11 Jun 2024

Interview with
Leah-Maria Sophie Rott,
co-CEO at Saferspaces

You can take the woman away from the ocean, but you can’t take the ocean away from the woman. Born in Flensburg, a coastal town on the German border with Denmark, Leah-Maria Sophie Rott traveled the world before returning to her home state of Schleswig-Holstein and eventually settling next to the ocean again, this time in Kiel. “When I returned to Germany,” she says, “I lived in Berlin, Marburg and Bremen, which was almost the north.” Still, these places didn’t quite hit the mark. “The university in Kiel had the same courses that Bremen did,” she says, “and after the birth of my second child, we were looking for a bigger home anyway. It was the right time to come back home.” 

Flensburg and Kiel have their fair share of healthy competition going on, and moving to Kiel didn’t mean she could easily let go of her assumptions about the city. “Growing up, when I was in school, it was always like, Flensburg is the cooler city,” she remembers. “But I was wrong. Kiel is absolutely worth falling in love with.”

Kiel is also where her entrepreneurial journey began back in 2015. The idea came about one evening when she was enjoying some music and wine and chatting to a new friend. It turned out they had a similar taste in music, and the idea came up to connect strangers via music. “By matching people’s taste in music on streaming platforms, you could discover new music, meet new people, and see which festivals or concerts they go to. That was the first step. We came up with an idea and saw that people got it and liked it.” 

Leah got in touch with, where her entrepreneurial journey in Kiel truly began. The organization offers a variety of free educational and networking opportunities for founders, creatives and curious people of all ages. “It was my home for my whole founding journey, not to mention my career,” she says. She began working there as a project manager and stayed in the role for over seven years. At the time, with all her focus on her kids and new job, her startup idea for the music-based matching app took a back seat. “I really liked what
were doing, so I decided to stop my studies to focus on my work there,” she says. “I still liked the whole cosmos of founding, the startup life, but it was a lot of novelty at once. The atmosphere, the projects and the organization at are all great.” 

Leah-Maria Sophie Rott — Photo by Jan Konitzki

What I really love about founding is the best practices for doing something better. The community is an important part of the exchange, as long as you’re open about not knowing.

One day, someone who had a similar idea to Leah’s music-based matching app took part
in one of the courses. “A colleague told him that he should get in touch with me, and luckily he did.” This someone was Gerret Halberstadt, a software developer. They started working together on ideas around music, including on the music-taste matching app. “That was how we got into the whole Hamburg music community and the Clubkombinat, a collection of music clubs,” she says. But the more they talked to club owners and event managers, the clearer it became that a different challenge needed to be addressed: the security and safety of people at these venues; for example, how the safety personnel could know what was really happening in terms of racism, sexual assault and discrimination at an event.

Leah and Gerret left the music-taste matching app idea behind and started developing Saferspaces, an app that connects people who experience or observe unsafe situations with those on-site who are working to protect them. “For us, that was the really important idea, and where we could actually have an impact,” she says. “We found a solution within our app, which not only connects people but also helps them and gives them a safer nightlife experience. Eventually, Gerret realized that it would be better if people didn’t need to download the app before being part of the system – people could easily receive help by scanning a QR code on Saferspaces posters and be directly connected to the awareness team, who are on-site and ready to help. Since then, a beautiful and crazy adventure started.” 

Saferspaces was founded in June 2021, and by December 2023, Leah was able to take the leap to working on it full time with Gerret. “I loved the’ belief in entrepreneurship and social impact, and I loved my job,” she says. “It’s a big decision to quit your job to focus on a project where you’re never sure it will work out. That was challenging for me.” The social impact of Saferspaces gave her the courage to take the leap. “We are passionate about Saferspaces because we could really make a difference. We received a few grant fundings, and the whole Kiel infrastructure helped us get feedback and develop the idea. In Kiel, someone always knows someone.” They also got support from Leah’s previous community at “The whole infrastructure is based on helping people to develop their own ideas, to believe in what they do, and to always look for new solutions.”

You can learn from others and still make your own mistakes and draw conclusions from them that may lead to success.

The Kiel community was crucial not only for the development of Saferspaces but also for its expansion. Saferspaces was shown at the Waterkant Festival, for example, where people were invited to test the system while visiting their booth. “At that time, we only had one club working with us,” she says. “At the festival, we focused on showing the different areas where our app could bring more safety, like in the transport system or at big events and even sports arenas. The Waterkant network also gave us valuable feedback and helped us to connect with new people.” 

Every entrepreneurial journey has some challenges, but, Leah says, with Saferspaces they’ve been so lucky in so many ways. “We are a good match as a team, and that is very lucky.” Successfully launching and monetizing a social impact business can be difficult, but luckily the public interest in awareness and inclusion was also growing – a perfect example of zeitgeist timing. And the impact Saferspaces was having was a game-changer for her. “That really motivates me. It’s not only about getting the big customers but about realizing that awareness and safety are now critical for them. For example, FC St. Pauli, Bayern Munich, and Holstein Kiel were the first customers in professional football. It’s very exciting being in this new field, and it’s important we make sure that our system is integrated in a way that it really offers clear added value for those affected. It does! And we can see that important processes are initiated. That motivates me a lot, and it helped me decide to put everything into Saferspaces.” 

For other founders, Leah recommends being open to making mistakes and connecting with people you trust. “Have a good network and remember you don’t have to take in everything that people tell you,” she says. “Put everything in a basket and choose what feels good for you and your project. We got so much advice, and all of it was precious, but not everything fit our project or our idea.” Self-reflection was also important in her entrepreneurial journey. “Be open to doing something wrong, because, in the end, we always get better. Personally, I like to think that I don’t know the best ways for everything. There are always people who know better. You can learn from others and still make your own mistakes and draw conclusions from them that may lead to success. It’s still scary, of course, but I like adventures.” 

Leah-Maria Sophie Rott — Photo by Jan Konitzki

Recently, Saferspaces began a partnership with Euro 2024. “This is our biggest project so far. Saferspaces will be at all the stadiums where the Euro games take place. This is huge because we’re still just a small team. Now we’re focusing on really doing this in the best possible way.” In the long term, Leah hopes that Saferspaces can stay focused on social impact, balancing big client projects like the Euros with smaller, nonprofit ventures, and growing their company while expanding their impact.

“I wasn’t a founder from the moment I got to Kiel, but from the moment I started working at, I experienced the network and the whole spirit of cooperation, and this happens not in an idealistic small circle but in the whole city. It involves politics, and nobody has to do everything by themselves.” Since she arrived in Kiel, the network has grown immensely, and the city itself has grown larger too. “Kiel is a really good size for changing something and having an impact because it’s the state capital of Schleswig-Holstein but still small enough that you know who you can talk to to bring ideas in and have them developed.” 

For Leah, who grew up in the countryside next to the sea, living in Kiel was a natural choice. “I was always close to nature; I have this need for it in my body,” she says. Now, she lives near the ocean and a few lakes, and she loves everything about it. “I’m busy and I’m always moving, so I could never have imagined I would live in a single area for over ten years. But I have, and that’s Kiel,” she says. “It’s a city, but you still have so much nature around you. That’s why I’m here – and that’s why I’m still here.”

[Flash Q & A]

Do you have a favorite book?
I love books. Last year I started reading Sally Rooney. My favorite was Normal People.

What do you have to do to start your day right?
Every morning, after dropping the kids at school, I go for a long walk with my dog.

What’s your favorite weekend activity?
During the day, I spend most of my time on the soccer field, joining my kids’ soccer matches, which is fun. In the evenings, I sometimes go to the Rune Sauna. Then, I like to visit the Cobl for a concert by local musicians. If I’m still up afterward, I love to go dancing.

‍[City Recommendations]

Favorite coffee shop:
The Cobl. It’s on, so I’m biased.

Favorite museum:
I really like the Freilichtmuseum in Molfsee. We live very close to it, and it’s always worth a visit.

Favorite park:
Schrevenpark is very central, close to the Cobl, and you always meet some people. It’s a nice small place to go out and walk for a little while.

Local food that a newcomer has to try:
Pizza by Dill Pizza.