Hakki Akdeniz, a former homeless immigrant and now successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, and owner of the hit NYC pizza chain Champion Pizza, presented at the February 2022 Rutgers x TED talk. Hakki has come a long way from sleeping on the streets to giving his speech at this prestigious university. He went from having absolutely nothing to being part of a small elite group who can say they’ve been chosen to give a TEDx talk.
Hakki was born in Silvan, a small village in Turkey. His childhood was spent in poverty, as his family had very little money. In fact, he had to drop out of school at age nine to work and help support his family. He did his best to embrace an entrepreneurial spirit in the hopes that in the future, he could work his way up to achieving something greater.
Hakki’s journey would take him from Turkey to New York City, where he was in pursuit of a job and a place to live. Hakki found work at a pizzeria but did not know a single thing about making pizza. Getting fired would have been devastating; but his compassionate employer allowed Hakki to start out at the restaurant as a dishwasher. However, he was still homeless. He had found shelter at NYC’s Bowery Mission. For 96 days, this was his home.
Through hard work and determination, Hakki worked, saved his money, and gradually learned everything about making pizza and running a business. He faced many setbacks; as well as struggling with homelessness, Hakki’s savings were stolen by someone he had trusted as a friend. Penniless once more, he had to start over from nothing.
But this time he’d already been at the bottom and knew that it was possible to make it back up, just like the last time. So he worked, and waited, and saved, and continued to learn about the art of making pizza and running a restaurant. At last, he built his now successful chain, Champion Pizza. He had finally achieved his dream of becoming something greater than just a poor immigrant from a small village.
However, he wasn’t done yet. Hakki had a new mission in mind: he wanted to give back to those in need, to help others just as he had once needed help. Over the years, Hakki has donated millions of dollars’ worth of pizza and clothing to the homeless population of New York City. Additionally, he has provided them with places to sleep, medical check-ups, haircuts, and showers. His goal is to motivate them to pursue the same success that he has found.
Hakki’s first-hance experience taught him that even those in the worst of conditions can find their way to success. “It is all about living through giving,” Hakki says. “My goal is to help as many homeless people as I can, because I understand how it feels since I used to be homeless as well.”
He knows that he has the power to inspire change. This is a big reason why was so honored to have been chosen to give his TEDxRutgers talk. “I want a platform where I can inspire millions more,” he shares. “My dream has finally come true, and I am so excited. I ask that everyone gives those in need a chance. Not everyone goes through life with equal opportunities. Some are born far less fortunate than others. So please, do not judge and instead spread love, peace, positivity, and help as much as you can. This way, we can bring humanity up altogether toward a greater future.”
His story is nothing short of inspirational. A man born in an impoverished region in a third world country came to America with nothing but a dream and found success and happiness through sheer will and hard work. Lacking even an elementary level education, Hakki Akdeniz nonetheless went from rags to riches. More importantly, his TEDx talk wasn’t about his legacy or accomplishments: it focused on his struggles and his own desire to give back to those in need.
“We need people to motivate our younger generation toward good deeds,” he says. “I hope to be that motivation by doing as much as I can for those who are in need.” His humanitarian and philanthropic work goes beyond merely writing checks for charities, as he routinely hires homeless workers at his own establishments. “I want to set an example, and not just talk about helping others. I have given people the second chances that I was once given and I have seen lives changed through the simple act of offering someone a shower, a haircut, or a job. We are all in this together.”