As president of Hidalgo Autos, Jorge Hildalgo operates a high-volume car dealership doing business as Wilde East Towne Honda on Madison’s east side. Hidalgo, the winner of the 2016 Latino Entrepreneur of the Year by the Latino Chamber of Commerce and the 2019 Community Business Leader Award from the Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce, is also involved in many different endeavors in the Madison community.
One of those endeavors is the Rotary Club of Madison, one of the top-10 largest Rotary Clubs in the world, where Hidalgo recently became the first-ever Latino president.
“It’s an organization that when you get involved, you’ll meet new friends and the diversity of the people you will meet is incredible,” Hidalgo tells Madison365. “I’ve met so many people that I never would have met through Rotary – from the university, the community, non-profits and more. I think what is fantastic about Rotary is that you meet incredible people and you can make positive change at home here in Madison and across the world.”
Born in the Dominican Republic, Hidalgo lived on the East Coast and in Milwaukee before arriving in Madison where he had Latina community leader Dora Zúñiga, who had been an active member in the Rotary Club of Madison for 24 years before moving to Florida, to thank for his involvement in Rotary Club.
“Dora came over to me as I was new to the city and opening up my business and she said, ‘There’s a couple of organizations I’d like you to get involved in.’ She mentioned Big Brothers Big Sisters, she mentioned the Latino Chamber of Commerce … and then she mentioned Rotary Club,” Hidalgo remembers.
Hidalgo really wanted to get involved in the community, but he was just starting his business.
“I had no customers. I really needed to spend two to three years busting my butt in this job. I started off with 65 employees and my goal was to get to 125-135. I had a long way to go. I needed to make sure that I could survive as a business,” Hidalgo says. “Usually, if you can survive the first year, you’ll be OK. But I told Dora, ‘I can’t really participate in anything else right now.’”
Hidalgo’s business did more than survive; it began to flourish becoming one of the top-five dealerships for Honda new car sales in Wisconsin. Zúñiga saw that his business was doing well and came back a few years later and asked: “So…. about that Rotary. How about now?”
At this point, Hidalgo was still pretty busy as the vice president of the board of the Fisher House of Wisconsin, a veterans charity based out of Milwaukee, part of the board for the Chamber of Commerce of Sun Prairie and board president of the Wisconsin Heartland Honda Dealers Advertising Association, on top of running his own company.
“Dora was tenacious about me becoming part of the Rotary Club,” Hidalgo says, “and I’m happy she was.”
Hidalgo officially joined Madison Rotary Club in 2014 and served on Rotary’s Strategic Planning, Welcoming and Veteran’s Assistance Committees. He was elected to the Rotary Club’s board of directors for a 2018-2020 term. On July 1, 2020, he became the president of Rotary Madison in the organization’s 108th year, making history as its first Latino president.
Hidalgo says that area Latino leaders in the Madison community that were active in Rotary paved the way before him to become the first Latino president of Rotary Club of Madison including Oscar Mireles, Zuniga, Juan Jose Lopez, Sandy Morales and more. Traditionally, Rotary Clubs throughout the United States, and especially in Madison, have been, for the most part, an older, white man’s club. Hidalgo says that this is changing.
“We’ve all been making a push to get more diversity in the club. In 2012, we were about 5 percent members of color. Now, we’re at 7 percent. We have to continue pushing for more,” he says. “Hopefully, we can get up to 10 or 11 percent. One of the things that we’re doing is we’re asking more people of color to come and speak to us.”
Recent guest speakers for the Rotary Club Luncheon have reflected the racial diversity of the city including Lisa Peyton Caire, the CEO and president of The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness (FFBWW); Annette Miller, founder of EQT by Design; new MMSD Superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins and School Board President Gloria Reyes.
“The bottom line for a lot of people is that they were like I was – they don’t even know what Rotary is. If we can get out there and let them know what we’re all about … if they can come and present and interact with myself and others and understand what we do, I think that will help,” he says. “And we will make sure that our members are recruiting other minority members.
“Until Dora asked me, I just didn’t know anything about Rotary. It was that personal connection and her telling me what a great organization it is,” he adds.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge challenge to do the things that they normally do at the Rotary Club of Madison. They haven’t been able to meet in person for a while, and the Wednesday meetings have been virtual for a long time now.
“We used to meet at the Park Hotel and we’d have up to 300 people in there. Our average attendance was 225 people. It was always fantastic. You’d be meeting different people as you put your coats away or walking in,” Hidalgo says. “It was amazing all of the interaction you’d have. But once COVID hit, we had to put that on hold.
“The COVID-19 pandemic poses a challenge. Some people don’t want to become a member until they can meet for lunch again. But overall, we’re trying to keep our head above water,” Hidalgo adds. “What I keep emphasizing is that we play a vital role in the Madison community and this is a time of need. Don’t give up. We’ve gone through some tough times before and this Club has survived that. One of the things I like to say is, ‘This, too, shall pass.’
The Rotary Club of Madison has been innovating as they hold virtual events over the last six months during the pandemic. “That posts a big challenge because the biggest benefits people had was the social interaction of those luncheons. People really enjoyed it,” Hidalgo says. “I remember seeing people at Rotary at 10:30 a.m. at the Park Hotel all the way to 2 p.m. Now, you can’t do that anymore; it’s all virtual.”
Hidalgo is a West Point graduate and Army veteran who worked for many years as a Harley Davidson executive at plants in New York, where he grew up, and in Milwaukee. He is a proud Dominican, and was born in the Dominican Republic. He still misses the cuisine, which is hard to find in Madison.
“If you go to some of the Hispanic stores here you can get plantains and a few other things,” he says. “But whenever I go home to New York, I get my Dominican food in Washington Heights.
“People will sometimes say to me, ‘Oh, Dominican food. That’s tacos.’ Tacos are Mexican. There’s island food – Puerto Rican and Dominican is pretty similar … Cuban food would be right up there,” he adds. “It has to be more a little spicier.”
Hidalgo has been back to his homeland, the Dominican Republic, five times.
“If I’m at a resort, I tell them that they are offering a lot of food that I can get in the U.S. What about Dominican food? They tell me that they don’t put them out because people aren’t comfortable with the local food,” Hidalgo says. “I tell them, ‘Well, I came here to eat that!’ So I talk to the waiter about hooking up a special meal for us with the cook when we are there.
“But I’ve traveled throughout the world and eaten so many things. I really believe in trying everything – Chinese, Korean. I love Italian.”
Hidalgo has been all over the world, first earning a bachelor of science degree in Economics from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York in 1981. He later earned a master’s degree in operations management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992. He served in the U.S. Army for more than 12 years as an Infantry Officer where he was an Army Ranger and Airborne Jumpmaster.
As the majority owner of the business in partnership with the Wilde Automotive Group, his dealership currently ranks in the top 10 in the Midwest zone for Certified Honda sales. Hidalgo has over 135 employees and encourages them to play an active role in the community.
“I tell my employees that nobody leaves this world alive. You can’t take material things with you. It’s the relationships and the legacy you leave behind trying to make a difference in the world,” Hidalgo says.
He believes that the Rotary Club of Madison is making a difference in its community.
“Every single meeting I talk about the difference that we make in the community,” Hidalgo says. “This year, we’re donating and contributing to the community $747,000. I’m not sure if many Rotarians even know that.”
The Annual Rotary Youth Awards Program recognizes 48 Madison-area high school students for their outstanding accomplishments. And over $350,000 is distributed annually in four-year college scholarship assistance through 15 named funds within the Madison Rotary Foundation. Participating Madison-area high schools submit candidate names from which Youth Scholarship Committee grants awards based on the direction established by the 15 fund donors.
“There are 25 scholarships we give out each year, and they aren’t a one-year scholarship, it’s a four-year scholarship ranging from $1,000-$12,000 depending on need,” Hidalgo says.
Additionally, nearly every scholar will have a Rotary mentor who stays connected with them throughout their college years.
“We have 111 volunteers that serve as mentors for these young people going to college,” Hidalgo says. “These are successful professionals who are willing to take the time to mentor someone who can call them and ask questions or advice, someone who can help them navigate their career.”
As the new president of The Rotary Club, Hidalgo says one of his goals is to increase awareness of the great things that Rotary is doing in the Madison-area community.
“Another goal of mine is to make sure that people are having fun, since people need a break from the trials and tribulations of everyday life,” he says. “And I want to strengthen Rotary through retention and recruitment of a talented and diverse group of people that place service above self.”