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Robert J. Shillman, E'68, Makes
$3 Million Gift for Classroom Building

Three decades ago, Robert J. Shillman, E'68, sat in a Northeastern classroom, studying to be an electrical engineer. This fall, the Classroom Building will be named for him in recognition of his recent $3 million gift to the University.

"I wanted to make the University even better than it was when I attended, and I wanted to do whatever I could to let the world know what a gem Northeastern is."

Shillman is the president, CEO, and chairman of the highly successful Cognex Corporations, the world's leading supplier of machine vision systems. He founded the company in Boston in 1981. Cognex manufactures computers that can "see," which are used in factories around the world to control the manufacturing of products and to ensure their quality.

He is married to Mao Shillman, and the couple has two sons, Maxwell, 6, and Barnett, 3.

Regarding the gift, Shillman says, "When I turned fifty, I began to reflect on how I got where I was and on the people and institutions that had helped me to be successful. I decided right then to recognize the role that Northeastern played in my success.

"I wanted to make the University even better than it was when I attended, and I wanted to do whatever I could to let the world know what a gem Northeastern is."

Over the years, Shillman has supported Legacy Scholarships for outstanding engineering students, and he established the Robert J. Shillman Fellowship in electrical and computer engineering.

In addition, his company has donated machine vision equipment to the College of Engineering and has set up a scholarship fund at Northeastern to help attract engineering students.

"There are a lot of personal benefits to giving. It adds to your life and makes you feel more fulfilled," says Shillman, who decided to take his support to a new level this year.

He notes that alumni who make substantial gifts towards campus buildings play an important role. Not only do the graduates provide financial assistance, but also — and perhaps more important — they enhance the University's reputations as Northeastern becomes associated with these individuals' successes.

Shillman cites the Maureen and Richard J. Egan Engineering/Science Research Center and Roger M. and Michelle S. Marino Recreation Center as example, adding, "I hope that by having my name on the Classroom Buildings and the success of Cognex associated with it, Northeastern will have an added intangible benefit."

President Richard M. Freeland says, "We are grateful to Bob Shillman for this generous gift. It is so appropriate that the Classroom Building, in which most of our students take at least one class, is being named for one of our most successful alumni and strongest supporters of Northeastern students."

The Classroom Building, which opened in 1995, will be formally dedicated in a ceremony on October 7. Shillman appreciates the building's architecture of red bricks and a glass façade, and is pleased that Northeastern has "broken away from the mold of four-story gray brick buildings.

Shillman enrolled at Northeastern in 1964, after graduating from high school in Milton, Massachusetts, where he excelled in math and science but had not done as well in other subjects. Shillman still takes his high school math teacher Rose Depoyan — now ninety-three years old — out to dinner each year to thank her for being a role model and encouraging him to succeed.

He is also tremendously grateful to his parents, Morton and Etta Shillman, for providing the guidance and encouragement to further his education at Northeastern.

"My father had graduated from an Ivy League school, but he insisted that I go to Northeastern and study engineering because of the University's excellent academic program and co-op program, which enabled me to simultaneously gain real-world experience and earn my own way." A plaque honoring his parents will hang in the lobby of the Classroom Building.

Shillman's first co-op job was at the Cyclotron Laboratory (a Harvard University physics laboratory), where he gained an interest in physics. His second co-op was at GTE Sylvania where the most important thing he learned was the he "did not want to work for a big company."

Instead, he chose the academic route, earning a master's degree and Ph D. in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after which he took a position as an assistant professor at Tufts University. However, he realized that being a professor was his father's dream more than his own.

"I really wanted to be an actor," says Shillman, who is known throughout the industry for his good humored theatrics and creative presentation style at Cognex's helm.

While teaching at Tufts, he began doing consulting work in the area of optical character recognition for major U.S. corporations. In 1981, after being frustrated by a company that did not follow his advice, he started the Cognex Corporation with his life savings of $87,000.

After eighteen years of hard work, the company has grown into a highly profitable corporation with revenues in excess of $150 million and 600 employees in twenty-four offices worldwide. It has a public market value of $1.25 billion.

Because of its business achievements in Japan and financial success, the company has received frequent recognition from magazines such as Business Week, Forbes, Fortune, and Industry Week.

Shillman was named Inc. Magazine's High-Tech Entrepreneur of the Year in 1990, received the Leadership Achievement Award from the Automated Imaging Associated in 1992, and was presented with Northeastern's Outstanding Alumni Award in 1994.

He says that when he dies, he wants his tombstone to read: "He made the world better than it would have been without him." With his gift to Northeastern, Shillman has done just that.

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  This article appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of Forefront.          

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