Zélia Cardoso de Mello was born in São Paulo on 20.09.1953. Her mother, Auzélia Martone Cardoso de Mello, is of Italian descent, and her family had immigrated to Brazil in the end of Century XIX. Her father, Emiliano Leopoldo Cardoso de Mello, belonged to a traditional family in São Paulo. Her father’s family had always participated actively in Brazilian politics

 Zélia grew up in São Paulo and attended the Colégio Vocacional Liceu Eduardo Prado and Colégio de Aplicação da Faculdade de Filosofia da USP.  As a student, her time at the Colégio de Aplicação had a deep influence in her formation. As she was attending school in 1968 and 1969, she ended up being a part of student activism groups and the protests against the political regimen in Brazil.  

Zélia graduated with a degree in Economics from the College of Economy and Administration of the University of São Paulo (Faculdade de Economia e Administração da USP/FEA - USP) in 1975. She completed her MBA and PhD in 1981.  In the FEA, she participated in the student organizations and was also an intern with Professor Alice Ca nabrava, a Professor and Chair of Economic History, with whom she developed a strong link and friendship. Zélia started to teach at FEA-USP in 1977, right after finishing college. She obtained a PhD in Economics in 1981 with the thesis, Metamorphoses of Wealth: São Paulo 1845-1895. It was later published by Hucitec (Hucitec, 1985). 

From 1976-1977, she worked at the Company of Housing of São Paulo, and after that she became a senior analyst of the Bank Auxiliar of São Paulo. At the same time, she taught classes part-time at  FEA- USP. In 1981, she took a leave of absence from the University and went to London, where she worked in the economics department of the Brazilian embassy. Upon her return to Brazil she came back to USP and started to work and collaborate with the State Government of São Paulo. She became a member of the audit committee of the São Paulo Energy Company/CESP  (1983-1987) and collaborated with the Franco Montoro government in São Paulo (1983-1987), working in the position of administrative and financial director of the State Housing Company.

During the government of President Jose Sarney (1985-1990) Zélia was invited to work at the Ministry of Finance. She worked as the Secretary of the Treasury, commanding the Secretariat of Financial Control of the Public Sector. This department was in charge of the control of the finance of the states, banks, and state-owned companies. In this capacity, she developed many important programs, such as the financial restructuring of Siderbrás, and programs to restructure the financial well-being of states and municipalities. After leaving the ministry in 1987, she formed a Consulting company called ZLC Associates, and went back to University of São Paulo.

1989 was a very important year in Brazil because, after almost 30 years of military regimen, there would be the first direct elections for President.  Zelia coordinated the economic program of the candidate Fernando Collor de Mello. When he won the election, Zelia became Minister of the Economy, Finance and Planning, a position created by the merger of the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Planning and Ministry of Industry and Commerce.  For that reason, the occupant of that Ministry became the most powerful person in the Government, after the President.

 Zelia and her team implemented the so-called Collor Plan. It was a set of measures aiming to tackle inflation and make structural changes in the Brazilian economy. Inflation was running at 82% a month and it could be described as hyperinflation. This was the most immediate problem they had to address. On the structural side, the Brazilian industry was diversified but very inefficient, and the economy was closed, with very low participation of imports and exports on the GDP.

Amongst the measures implemented by the Collor Plan, the following stood out: the closing of 24 agencies and state-owned companies, the dismissal of hundreds of civil servants, and the announcement of a privatization program. In the fiscal area the prohibition of bearer checks above a certain amount, the increase of IPI (Tax on Industrialized products)), the elimination of subsidies that were not granted in the Constitution.  There was also a temporary freezing of prices, but within a month, a fast process of release had begun. The indexation of the wages was substituted by a rule of readjustment with an index of daily pay settled for the Government.

In the external area, the liberalization of the exchange rate substituted the “mini depreciations” managed by the Central Bank. A process of opening the economy began with the gradual reduction of aliquot on imports and the end of the so-called “Attached C”, which forbade the imports of various items.

The structural measures that Zelia’s team implemented were very successful and, in fact, changed the shape of the Brazilian economy. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said in regards to the fight against inflation. The team implemented a monetary reform which was very controversial and caused many problems. The rule of conversion of the new currency resulted in a freezing of the monetary assets. With exception of the paper currency in circulation, the different monetary assets would have to obey the rules of conversion for the new currency

Another area where the team failed was the external debt. Brazil was in moratorium since the Sarney Government. Zelia and her team were unable to renegotiate the external debt.

The implemented plan did not reach the goal of ending inflation and led the country into a recession and increasing unemployment. In 1990 the GDP fell 4.6%; the unemployment went up from 3.3% to 5,2%. In December of 1990, inflation was rising by 20% per month. In January, the economic situation continued to deteriorate and all the indexes signaled inflationary acceleration. In January 1991, the Collor Plan 2 was announced, with the purpose of decreasing inflation and stopping the recession.

Unfortunately, the political support of the Ministry was fading and on May 1991, Zelia offered her resignation to President Collor and was substituted by Marcílio Marques Moreira.

 Zelia returned to the College of Economics at the University of Sao Paulo, and also to her private consulting company. After her marriage with the actor and comedian Chico Anysio in 1992  the birth of their two children, Rodrigo and Victoria, Zélia removed herself from the public limelight and from her professional life. In 1997 she moved to New York with her husband and children, but decided to work at home until they were older. She belongs to the Board of the Brazilian American Chamber of Commerce and  is currently a partner at Aquila Associates in Manhattan.