Legesse (Meles) Zenawi was born on 8 May 1955 in the Tigrean town of Adwa. His name at birth, Legesse, was replaced by the adopted name, Meles, in the 1980s. Following an Ethiopian custom, Meles was taken to honor a hero who was executed in 1985 by the Mengistu regime.
Meles attended secondary school in Addis Ababa at the General Wingate High School. Meles started his undergraduate studies at the Medical Facility of Addis Ababa University. He discontinued his studies in 1974 while a second-year student to join the TPLF, which spearheaded the popular struggle against the military dictatorship of the Mengistu regime. Meles has been described as an "energetic, wiry, hyperactive, cautious, and able" leader. Meles speaks fluent Amharic and English besides his native language, Tigrinya. He is married and has two children. Meles holds a master of business administration from Open University, United Kingdom.