The idea that made him a maternity mogul came to Andrew Zenoff in 1993 as he visited his friend Michal Margulies, who had recently given birth to Chelsea, her first baby. Trying to adjust a pile of pillows as she sat down to nurse, Margulies turned in exasperation to Zenoff. "You know, Andrew," she said, "someone needs to invent something that makes holding babies more comfortable."

Inspired, Zenoff, then a waiter and unsuccessful actor in L.A., went to work. The result, with an estimated $5 million in annual sales: My Brest Friend, a shelf-like foam cushion for baby. Attached to Mom by an adjustable strap, it alleviates the sore shoulders and necks that plague breast-feeding mothers—and it leaves their hands free. "Moms love it," says Kathleen Huggins, director of breast-feeding at California's San Luis Obispo General Hospital and author of The Nursing Mother's Companion, "because it holds the baby so they can concentrate on technique."

Celebrities are latching on to the pillow too. Kelly Ripa, who had her second baby, Lola, in June, bought one. Julianna Margulies gives them to friends who are expecting. And actress Holly Robinson Peete needed it after her twins arrived in 1997.

The circuitous road that led single guy Zenoff, 37, to his unlikely role as a new mom's best friend started in Cambridge, Mass., where he and his two older siblings' pediatrician was celebrated child-care expert Dr. T. Berry Brazleton. The family had moved to Palo Alto, Calif., by 1982, when his parents, business consultant David and psychologist Nisha, divorced. After graduating from Boston's Babson College, where he majored in entrepreneurship and marketing, Zenoff headed to L.A. for a job in real estate development. In 1987, though, recruited to appear in a student film, he decided to try acting. "I went on 150 auditions," he says, "and got rejected 149 times." His only callback: a forgettable 1993 indie named Double Exposure.

All those rejections, he says now, gave him the thick skin he needed when it came time to market My Brest Friend. After his eureka moment with his breast-feeding pal, Zenoff began researching—mainly visiting baby stores and talking to new parents. After moving to San Francisco in 1993, he borrowed $12,000 from friends and set to work, drawing diagrams and "playing with pieces of foam" in his basement apartment.

A year and a half later he was ready to introduce My Brest Friend. The only problem? "I was often the only male at a breast-feeding conference," he says. Zenoff quickly recruited his mother to accompany him. "He said people " might not want to hear a bachelor talk about breast feeding," says Nisha, 61, who now lives close to her son in Tiburon, Calif., "but they might listen to a mom." Nisha soon found that the product wasn't the only thing some attendees were interested in. "People would come over to our booth," she says, "and want to fix Andrew up with their daughters—or to be fixed up with him themselves."

Buoyed by endorsements from Huggins, whom Zenoff met at a conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the La Leche League, which advocates breast-feeding, sales of My Brest Friend began to take off. More than 600 outlets, from specialty stores to catalogues and Internet sites, now carry it.

With his brainchild doing nicely by itself, Zenoff has turned his attention to his next project. Naturally it's mom-related: the Day One store that he just opened in San Francisco, where mothers can do everything from buying a teething ring to attending a lecture on child care. If it succeeds, says Zenoff, he hopes to open other branches. "New moms," he says, "need a lot of support and guidance."

And what of his own family plans? Although he has no girlfriend at the moment, Zenoff, an avid surfer who lives alone in a three-bedroom Spanish-style house in suburban Mill Valley, Calif., says, "I absolutely want to have a family someday." When that moment comes, he's all set. "Fathers can also use My Brest Friend to support the baby while giving formula," says Zenoff. "It holds the baby close to Dad's heart."

Mike Neill
Penelope Rowlands in San Francisco

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  • Penelope Rowlands.