Odysseys: South Korean adoptee tries to defy the Asian-American stereotype

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There’s never a question when Nick Drombosky is in the room. The 27-year-old founder of Fiks:Reflective, a 2½-year-old company that specializes in bike accessories, is one of those rare souls who can balance being loud, funny and self-deprecating without coming across as a phony.

Because he is on his bike much of the day, the young entrepreneur has the lithe, muscular build of someone who has figured out how to burn excess body fat before it can make itself at home.

Between his stylish haircut, street-savvy demeanor and pronounced cheekbones when he laughs, Nick is constantly told he comes across as far younger than he actually is. Most of the time, that works for him, but he’s smart enough not to dwell on it.

When Nick was 10 months old, he was adopted from his native South Korea and brought to live in Western Pennsylvania, where he has lived since. Because adoption record-keeping used to be poor in South Korea, Nick knows little to nothing about his birth family. He knows he was born in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city. Because he left his native country as a baby, he doesn’t speak the language beyond a few “rude phrases.”

Growing up Asian-American in Pittsburgh was not easy for Nick, especially when he was younger. Though he smiles while telling the story, it is clear that an incident that occurred when he was out to dinner with his white parents and his adopted brother, who is also Asian-American, still bothers him years later.

“The server asked if me and my brother were on a different check,” Nick says. “Incidents like that are constant reminders you’re not being accepted.”

But instead of being beaten down by ongoing examples of ignorance and disrespect, Nick used the incident as a drive to “push beyond mediocre,” he says with a touch of drollness.

As if to defy every stereotype about being a “high-achieving Asian-American,” Nick dropped out of the University of Pittsburgh because he was bored by the very idea of the conventional life in mechanical engineering or economics that awaited him. He knew he wanted to do something with bikes and bike-riding culture.

Nick started Fiks:Reflective with a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign in 2011 and a second campaign that raised $14,000. His products are now sold in 41 countries. The reflective decals he designs and manufactures to make bikes more visible at night can be found in several Pittsburgh bike shops along with T-shirts, hoodies and caps.

Besides being the founder of a business known for its quality product, Nick is a prominent activist in Pittsburgh’s cycling community. Two years ago, he was hit on his bicycle by a reckless driver in a pickup truck on Wilkins Avenue near the intersection with South Negley in Squirrel Hill. Though the driver left the scene, several witnesses managed to get the driver’s license plate number. But the driver was never caught.

Nick also restarted the tradition of “ghost bike” memorials near the scenes of where cyclists have been killed. Nick and other volunteers place donated, stripped down white spray-painted bikes at the scene as a reminder that a bicyclist has been lost.

Despite his entrepreneurial success — though he’s quick to say he has a long way to go with his business even as overseas orders grow — Nick has a lot of ambivalence about Pittsburgh and wouldn’t rule out moving if something interesting caught his eye. He believes that too much of the city’s combination of racism and intolerance is swept under the rug by people who don’t experience it. It is something that he says he encounters a lot.

“I’m in Pittsburgh because my family is here. There’s community here for me,” he says.

He has been approached by lawmakers from other cities who have urged him to move Fiks:Reflective to their areas. In the end, he stays because there are a lot of great things about Pittsburgh that outweigh the idiocy he often encounters.

“This is an American city,” he said. “It was built by immigrants. Pittsburgh was the tech hub of the world from 1885 to 1912. Everything came out of Pittsburgh.”

Nick loves the symmetry of seeing Pittsburgh return to that era as a giant in medicine, bio-tech, computer science and other high-tech industrial disciplines. He also loves the fact that George Banker, one of the 19th century’s premier professional cyclists, was a Pittsburgher. Nick sees himself as an heir to that cycling tradition in Pittsburgh.

In tribute to Banker, Nick plans to open a retail storefront soon on Baum Boulevard in East Liberty called Banker’s Supply that will stock products from Fiks:Reflective and other businesses he supports.

“Whenever I have a bad week, I remind myself that Pittsburgh is an easy place to get started [in business],” he says. “It is also an easy place to get a big head. We’re a town of 300,000, so it is easy to stake out a friendly space to operate.”

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG

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