Panama City -- When Ernesto Argüello, a Honduran civil engineer, was 12 years old, he worked for his father for a month and used all his earnings to buy a pair of fancy sneakers on a family vacation trip.
He was surprised his money didn’t buy more, but his father told him that some of the people he worked with had to support their families on the same wage.
For Argüello, it was a transformative experience. Two years after graduating from the University of Miami in 2002, he and his brother founded HOLA Realty, a real estate development company that helps the poor buy homes for the equivalent of what they had been paying in rent as well as addresses education and other social needs to help them get ahead.
“We’ve changed the lives of 10,000 people. And the first life that was changed was my own,’’ said Argüello at an Inter-American Development Bank seminar Thursday that highlighted a new generation of leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean who are bringing fresh ideas to solving old social problems such as unemployment, high school dropout rates, teen pregnancies, violence, inequality and environmental degradation.
It was the opening event of the 54th annual meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank, the leading source for development financing in the region.
The IDB meeting, which runs through Sunday, brings together finance ministers and central bank presidents from the bank’s 48 member countries, as well as some 3,000 representatives from development agencies, banking institutions, companies and civil society organizations.
“This is a generation that will bring about major advances in society,’’ said Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the IDB.
Young leaders in the region, he said, are goal-oriented, hyper-connected and searching for meaning in their work.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the average age is only 27 — making it the region with the world’s youngest population.
In a rapidly changing world, Moreno said, decision-makers need to “open their eyes’’ to the solutions that young social entrepreneurs have come up with.
Among the young innovators bringing new voices to persistent problems was Carolina Araoz, who formed the Youth Orchestra of New Music in her native Peru — a country where music courses aren’t part of the public school curriculum — when she was 17 years old. She took out a newspaper ad that attracted people from all over Lima.
She opened her IDB presentation by playing the saxophone, an instrument she took up when she was 21 and everyone said it was impossible to learn. But she was persistent..
Now 33, she went on to found the music school Jazz Jaus. It has students from six to 70 years old and janitors play alongside chief executives.
“It’s incredible how music can bring people together,’’ she said. “Music has made my life more democratic” and that’s why she decided to share its benefits with others.
The killing of his best friend motivated Juan David Aristizábal, a young Colombian social entrepreneur, to get involved. He is the founder of Buena Nota, a social innovation incubator that seeks to get at the root of social problems.
It matches people who want to bring about change in their communities with experts who can help them carry out their projects. So far, he said, Buena Nota has reached 50,000 people.
Now, he said, the project is being taken to the schools “to turn youth into agents for social change in their own neighborhoods.”
Rhona Díaz, a mechanical engineer who founded the Panamanian company Tecnologías Sostenibles (Sustainable Technologies) and a researcher at Panama’s Technical University, has created a system for an economical, sustainable home. It uses solar power as well as recycles rain water for use in toilets and for household cleaning and gardening.
The water recycling system is especially suitable for Panama, which has an eight-month rainy season, and can be purchased for just $40.
“You, at your age, have a great chance of realizing your dreams,’’ Lucy Molinar, Panama’s education minister, told the standing-room-only crowd of young people and their elders. “Don’t create barriers for yourself.”