Champion Pizza CEO Hakki Akdeniz: From Homelessness to Success
- Former homeless immigrant now a successful entrepreneur
- Award-winning philanthropist gives TEDxRutgers talk
- Champion Pizza goes from near-bankruptcy to thriving franchise
New York City’s Champion Pizza is thriving along with its founder and CEO, former displaced immigrant Hakki Akdeniz.
From sleeping next to his pizza oven to stay warm after being forced to give up his apartment, Hakki has overcome diverse obstacles to grow his business to the successful chain restaurant it is today. In February 2022, he was welcomed at Rutgers University to give his TEDx talk, “Homeless Not Hopeless”. In the talk, he described his humble origins: raised in the small village of Silvan in Turkey, he had to develop an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age. At just 9 years old, he had to drop out of school to work and help support the family.
Encouraged by a friend, he moved to New York City in 2001 in pursuit of the American dream – but a dream was all he had. He didn’t speak English and had almost no money. That friend, the only person Hakki knew in New York, never showed up as promised to pick Hakki up from the bus depot. He had nowhere to go. He found a cheap motel but his money was soon gone. He went from the cold streets to a homeless shelter and at last was given a job as a dishwasher at a pizza restaurant.
For a long time, Hakki barely made a living but managed to save his money; despite setbacks, which included having his savings stolen by a trusted friend, he finally opened his first restaurant on the lower east side of Manhattan. But his struggles weren’t over. The business was slow to gain traction, and eventually Hakki found himself sleeping at the restaurant when he couldn’t afford his apartment.
Everything changed in 2010 when he won first place in the World Pizza Championship (he’s now a three-time winner) – and the tide turned for Champion Pizza, so named as to honor Hakki’s triumphs over adversity. Hakki’s restaurant began to get attention and he was soon able to open multiple locations.
He is now the proud member of an elite group of those who have been called upon to share their knowledge and experience via a TED talk. But despite the success he has achieved, Hakki’s mission is far from complete. His true passion is to give back to those in need and help those struggling with homelessness, just as he once did. Now he has donated millions of dollars’ worth of pizza, clothing, and other necessities to the homeless population of New York City. He has also provided indigent people with places to sleep, medical check-ups, haircuts, and showers, as well as helped them get jobs and start new lives. His goal is to motivate them to pursue the same success that he has found.
“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. I know that I can inspire change.” He feels that his story is the epitome of the American dream: born impoverished, lacking a formal education, and coming to NYC to pursue an impossible dream and reaching success.
Champion Pizza employs as many homeless people as it can at its various locations. Hakki asked in his TEDx talk that other companies reach out to the needy as he has, not just to donate money but to actually give them a chance at employment. “Each homeless person has a story,” he says. “No one chooses to live on the streets.” In 2019, he received the Beacon Award from The American Immigrant Society, and he continues to pursue his philanthropic work as well as grow his business.
Hakki Akdeniz’s website: http://hakkiakdeniz.com