Meet The Team

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Billy Downing

Billy Downing is president and founder of Launch Academy. He is an expert in the college admissions process, having coached and guided hundreds of families around the globe for over a decade. Billy helps both students and parents understand how they can most effectively navigate the college admissions process and find the right-fit college or university.

He is the founder and CEO of the ESM Group, a leading educational services firm in the US and Asia. Downing pioneered the “academic mentorship” model which is used by his company for subject-specific tutoring, college admissions consulting, and standardized test preparation.

Downing has been featured on various news networks, radio shows and quoted in print media for expert commentary on education reform, college counseling and strategies for how students can maximize their college choices.

He also sits on the boards of the YMCA of Superior California, WIND Youth Services, and Positive Coaching Alliance.

Downing, who has a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree from the University of San Francisco, lives in Sacramento with wife and two young children.

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Kira Brownell

Kira Brownell started her tutoring career in her senior year at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She began with statistics and soon was tutoring four different subjects. Her love for helping people inspired her to be the best mentor she could be for her students by bringing joy to difficult subjects. After graduating from Rio Americano High School in 2012, Kira discovered a love for coding and business process development at UCSC where she graduated with honors.

Kira finds that students learn best if the learning environment is fun and personable. She likes her students to feel confident about going to her for help with anything. One of Kira’s main goals is to teach students lifelong skills and learning techniques in a clear and effective manner. One way Kira does this is by switching the roles and allowing the students to act as the teacher to show a complete understanding of the materials they’ve just reviewed. Several of Kira’s previous students have said that this unique method of learning is extremely helpful and beneficial.

Kira discovered her passion for educating others through horseback riding and soccer. She has been training horses and young riders since 2012 and has helped run her family’s boarding facility since 2018.  Kira makes it her top priority that her students, horses, and riders fully understand every concept before confronting the next.

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Katie Lawrence Levy

Katie is ESM Prep’s CEO. She enjoys leading ESM and making it the best student-, family-, and team-focused educational services company out there. She works directly with students as a college counselor and MBA coach, encouraging them to reach for their dreams and reflect on what they are looking for in an educational experience. She enjoys helping applicants strategize about their overall application, prioritize which schools are the best fit for them, and ultimately succeed in their applications for admission.

Katie has been helping students and applicants achieve their dreams since middle school in various roles: academic tutor, test prep tutor, mentor, coach, college counselor, admissions interviewer, and motivator. She wholeheartedly believes in the value of education – she comes from a family full of teachers – and what the right-fit school can do for a student’s career path and happiness.

She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Princeton University and later graduated from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, where she was awarded the Julia Stell Award for outstanding leadership in the community. She worked in Tuck’s Admissions Office and interviewed applicants, and she greatly enjoyed being Captain of her ice hockey and triathlon teams while there. She was also an alumni interviewer for Princeton for many years.

An avid adventurer, Katie has biked across the United States twice (most recently, she led a group of 25 young adults on a cross-country biking trip with Bike and Build to raise money for affordable housing), as well as France, Alaska, and much of Canada, and she hiked Kilimanjaro just a few years ago. Katie lives in San Francisco with her husband Simon, young son Riley, and golden doodles Lucy and Bailey.

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Lucas McAdams

Lucas takes the time to get to know his students individually, tailoring specific approaches to the college application process for each one based on their interests and passions. He helps both students and parents understand how they can most effectively navigate the college admissions process and find the right-fit college or university.

Previously, he worked at a middle school in the Portland (OR) area, counseling at-risk students facing a wide variety of challenges. His passion for education is surpassed only by his desire to build that passion in his students, helping them identify goals that will carry them into college and beyond.

A successful student athlete at Portland’s Grant High School, Lucas excelled in basketball, baseball, and golf. His academic pursuits won out, however, and he attended the University of Oregon. Lucas studied political science, computer science, journalism, and business administration before graduating in 2011.

Today, Lucas remains highly involved in youth team sports, coaching high school basketball in the East Bay area. In his limited free time in which he isn’t coaching or mentoring high school students, he enjoys taking risks, trying new things, and exploring the world with his fiance, Abby.

“Lucas is well-organized, punctual and thoughtful, and he took a personal interest in the success of our son. We really appreciate that the process was made so manageable for our son, and the fact that the stress associated with college applications was eliminated from our household — priceless!”

– Carla P., Piedmont, CA

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Eric Harter

Eric’s passion is motivating students to become their best and help guide their futures and impact as many lives of young people as possible. He has coached students and families all over the world with the college admission process. One of Eric’s greatest skills is positively encouraging students to reach their goals and aspirations with a focus on attitude, hard work, and perseverance. Before joining ESM, Eric was a middle school science teacher in East Oakland. He was beloved by his students, and he challenged them with a rigorous curriculum, held them accountable for their actions, and most importantly made sure that every student knew that he cared deeply about each and every one of them.

Eric knows that in order for students to learn, they need to want to learn. He works tirelessly to create the relationships and learning environment that make learning enjoyable. This allows him to push the limits of what they thought previously possible. Eric mentors students on the path to college and their dreams in the Sacramento region and online from coast-to-coast. He is a Student Motivation Expert, College Coach, and Youth Mentor with a long track record of helping all students from the highest achieving to the extremely unmotivated. He simply gets results. If you need help with your child and their motivation, Eric will be the perfect fit for your family.

When Eric is not mentoring students, he is spending time with his wife, Gabi, and their three-year-old son, Evan. He loves sports and plays basketball, hockey, and golf. He also enjoys biking through the beautiful hills of Placer County.

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Josh Davis

Josh graduated from St. John’s International School in Waterloo, Belgium, in 2005 after completing an ambitious yet well-rounded combination of IB and AP courses. He spent one year as a post-grad (PG) at the Hun School of Princeton prior to attending Yale University, where he majored in History.

The highlight of Josh’s time at Yale was being a 4-year member of the varsity basketball team, which made him appreciate the power of dedicated teamwork in the quest of a common goal. He was also Student Recruitment Coordinator for the Yale Admissions Office, mentor for an inner-city extracurricular program, and a leader of several cultural organizations.

The groundwork for an interest in education was laid early, as both of Josh’s parents were educators for 30+ years. Beginning with tutoring younger students in his middle and high school days, Josh continued teaching every summer during college, and following university as well.

He has taught a wide range of subjects from English, French, and history, to physical education and music. He believes every academic subject offers its own unique way of communicating different life lessons and values to young people. Getting students to become aware of this concept is a challenge he truly enjoys.

Josh is based in between Miami and London, and he has been the Managing Director for ESM Prep in the UK since opening up the London office in 2015. He enjoys helping international students with their dreams of studying in the United States, coaching basketball (formerly at the American School in London), and continuously learning the most important life lesson of them all: how to take care of his two boys.

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Ted Murguia

After spending much of his career as a Silicon Valley executive, Ted rediscovered his joy and passion for mentoring. It began slowly as he volunteered with one non-profit, then a second; both are dedicated to helping disadvantaged individuals acquire and develop life skills necessary to overcome their obstacles. It has now become a full-time passion helping students and their families navigate the path to college.

Ted develops relationships with his students with the approach that we are all unique mixes of many ingredients which can be changed, enhanced, left out, or featured not only in the college journey, but in our journeys in life.

He views the partnership with each of the students as a joint process to understand those ingredients and turn them into a fulfilling college experience and empowerment for the future.
Ted now lives in Atherton with his wife Anne, and has two daughters well into their college years (Amherst, Barnard, and now Columbia).

He graduated from Stanford as an Industrial Engineer, but never worked a day as an IE, with an emphasis in computer science and eventually ended up at Wharton where he got his MBA and spent his career in Silicon Valley.

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Stuart Easton

Stuart is a lifelong educator with experiences in all realms of the high school-to-college pipeline. He began his career as an award-winning classroom teacher before working his way into administrative roles for a nationally recognized high school. Along the way, he developed a passion for helping students find their voice as they sought a path after high school. Since that realization he has presented to countless groups of high school students, worked one-on-one with students accepted to their ideal choices, and developed an empathetic and student-led model for navigating the college application process.

In his work with students, Stuart finds that the college selection process is as much self-discovery as it is filling out applications. Although the goal of every partnership is to help students reach their full potential, the foundation for doing so is an earnest and honest look at who the student is and who they want to be. Through compassionate connection, these findings can be manifested in concrete actions that will not only make applicants more successful, but also allow them to feel confident that when they are accepted, they are accepted for their true selves and have found a place that will nurture them in the present and the future.

This passion for supporting students stems from Stuart’s childhood. Stuart was born in England and raised in Lexington, Massachusetts, and although his childhood was wonderful, growing up in an entirely different country from his parents made him realize the importance of support and acceptance through academics. It was through the classroom that he grew into an avid reader, writer, basketball player, and traveler who loved to learn. After high school, Stuart moved to Connecticut to attend Quinnipiac University. He focused on his love of writing by studying Journalism and English. Stuart also took advantage of an opportunity to explore his passion for travel by enrolling in Semester at Sea—a study abroad program that circumnavigates the globe by ship. Through this experience, Stuart had the chance to work with young people around the world, and he realized his passion for education. Upon returning, he enrolled in Quinnipiac’s Master’s of Arts in Teaching program.

Now that he is settled down in San Diego with his wife and daughter, Stuart is pursuing his passion for writing while also partnering with ESM Prep to help students achieve their highest potential. When he is not coaching students or spending time with his family, Stuart loves to travel, play basketball, and read.

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Kat Baruffi

Kat is something of a nomad. She was born in New York and then moved to Taiwan, where she attended Taipei American School and became fluent in Mandarin. She returned to the US and spent her middle and high school years in the north shore of Chicago before attending Boston College. Having been involved in plays from a young age, Kat decided to major in Theatre at BC. She loved the storytelling aspect of the subject, as well as the ways in which theatre was singularly able to create a deep human connection. While enjoying the rigorous core curriculum at Boston College, Kat was hooked by the similar interrelatedness of Theology and pursued it as a minor.

After graduating from Boston College in 2011, she moved to Los Angeles in 2012 and worked in television and film casting. She turned her focus to tutoring after realizing her love for mentoring at a children’s theatre summer camp. Kat found that her theatre skills transferred seamlessly over to teaching, and she has since greatly enjoyed utilizing her theatrical background to create a fun, energetic learning environment. Kat has over six years of experience tutoring SAT, ACT, SAT Subject tests, English, and history. Kat coaches her students with compassion, humor, and mutuality. She believes in helping students take ownership of their academic paths in addition to teaching them the necessary skills to excel. When Kat is not mentoring, she’s probably hiking, reading, doing some creative writing, or continuing her quest of trying a new SoCal restaurant every month.

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Andrea Satariano

For over 25 years, Andrea Satariano has worked with students and families in the college search and application process. Her early years as an admission representative at Muskingum University and Denison University helped inform her work as a college counselor at some of the best independent schools in the country. She has served on numerous college advisory boards, presented at state and national conferences, and mentored many new college counselors through her work with ACCIS (Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools). Andrea has formed deep bonds in the college admission community and she regularly visits college campuses to maintain those connections and remain current on the ever-changing admission processes colleges employ.

Andrea has always partnered closely with students and their parents, but believes the most successful college processes are ones in which the student leads the way. Coaching and mentoring students to find their voice and reflect on their interests and values has played a central role in her work. A simple search for ‘top schools in a particular major’ can be a helpful starting point, but Andrea knows that there are many important factors for students to consider in order to find college communities within which they will be most successful. Additionally, helping to keep students organized and on task is an important component to Andrea’s work with teenagers in the college search and application process, as is guiding family discussions around the strategy of applying through colleges’ Early Decision, Early Action, Single Choice EA, and Regular application plans.

Andrea is a graduate of Muskingum University where she double majored in Business and Communications. She has a Master of Education in School Counseling from Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH. Andrea lives with her teenage son, AJ, in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA with their two rescued cats, and is frequently seen walking through town with a coffee in hand. She enjoys exploring hiking trails, spending time with family (especially if there’s a beach involved), and watching or attending a variety of professional (football and hockey) and collegiate (football, basketball, and lacrosse) athletic events.

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Brian Smith

Brian serves ESM Prep as Director of Curriculum and as a Senior Academic Mentor, focusing primarily on SAT, ACT, and AP preparation. Throughout his career, he’s worked with thousands of students, catering to their unique strengths and weaknesses based on his thorough knowledge of both the SAT and ACT. (He knows all of the 60+ released ACT exams and 30+ released SAT exams inside and out.) As Director of Curriculum, he uses that knowledge to continually update ESM’s curriculum and resources to reflect every latest change in the exams, ensuring that they are the highest quality materials available. 

In his approach to mentoring, Brian loves encouraging students to develop their critical thinking and comprehension abilities, providing them with long term skills that will serve them well both in their collegiate and professional careers. He prides himself on a methodical approach to test preparation: precisely honing in on whatever issues, major or minor, may be confronting a student—conceptual, mental, etc.—and applying whatever methods necessary to correct said issues until the student has attained their highest potential score. Beyond that, he strives to make the test preparation process as “fun” as possible by individualizing it to each student and connecting with them at each stage of the process.

Brian graduated from UC Davis, where he received his B.A. in Economics and International Relations, along with minors in Psychology and Philosophy. After graduating from UC Davis, he moved to Washington D.C., where, in addition to tutoring, he managed multiple tutoring centers, overseeing student progress as well as teacher hiring and training, giving him extensive experience with guiding families and their students through the college admissions process. But Brian’s heart was always on the West Coast, and he eventually returned to continue his passion for education in Washington state, where he now resides in the capital Olympia, with his dog D’Artagnan and cat Mo. In his spare time, he enjoys reading as many books as humanly possible, playing a reasonable amount of video games, both watching and playing basketball, and exploring the great outdoors in Washington. He has been a big fan of the Sacramento Kings ever since he lived in Germany for two years as a child, when his dad woke him up at 2:00 am to watch them in the NBA playoffs. Go Kings!

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Sean Towers

Sean grew up in Modesto, California where he developed an appreciation for passionate teachers at an early age. Those teachers inspired him to start tutoring as a senior in high school, and he has been involved in education and youth development ever since.‍

After high school Sean attended U.C. Santa Barbara and was excited to explore new interests, including working as a sports broadcaster for the university’s radio station. After earning his B.A. in Anthropology, Sean gave up the beaches and palm trees (and 40 degrees of warmth) of Santa Barbara for the mountains of Lake Tahoe. He worked there as a ski instructor for two winter seasons before moving to San Francisco to begin his mentoring journey.

In 2018 Sean was hired as the Middle School Coordinator for SquashDrive, a nonprofit after-school college prep organization. He tutored his middle school students in all subjects, including SSAT prep, and he also spent many late nights tutoring the program’s high school students in a range of subjects: Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II, English, U.S. Government, Environmental Science, and SAT/ACT prep. During his time at SquashDrive, Sean started to favor a tutoring philosophy that aligned with his role as a mentor–holistic instruction. This approach incorporates the social and emotional needs of students and helps establish a supportive, healthy learning environment. Ultimately, Sean wants to give each of his students the tools they need to grow and succeed in school as well as life.

In his free time Sean enjoys skiing, theater, camping, and playing water polo.

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Teren Teeples

Teren is an expert academic and test prep mentor who has devoted hundreds of hours supporting students in ACT/SAT prep, chemistry, biology, math, and AP exam prep. He grew up in St. George, Utah, where he discovered his passion for tutoring and mentorship his senior year of high school, working as a general tutor and teaching assistant for English, math, and chemistry. Teren’s love for math and science led him to achieve his Bachelor’s degree in Biological Engineering from Utah State University. Outside of his academic pursuits, Teren’s mentorship career continued when he joined Student Support Services at USU to provide academic support for students with an increased need. As a lifelong learner, Teren is pursuing his Master’s degree in Biological Engineering, with his thesis focused on microfluidic modeling of retinal disease to elucidate early therapeutic targets.

Teren believes that guiding students within a fun, uplifting, and personable environment is best for promoting each student’s success. He wants his students to feel comfortable and confident coming to him for help with anything. Teren’s mentorship philosophy focuses on building overall confidence and self-efficacy within his students. He does this by building students up to concept mastery and then implementing role reversal, allowing the student to become the teacher, to demonstrate comprehension.

When Teren is not working to build up others, he is working towards his goal of being a lifelong learner by baking/cooking, reading, or bingeing TV shows and movies. On a day off, you can find Teren spending time with his friends and family, or meticulously reorganizing the fridge, pantry, or a random closet.

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Anne Hsia

Anne Hsia has over ten years of mentoring and teaching experience. From helping her high school piano teacher teach music theory to working at the tutoring center in college to teaching at a private school, Anne has worked with hundreds of students for various subjects – AP Mandarin, SAT & ACT, as well as all levels of math, physics, and engineering courses.

The organization and time-management skills she developed triple majoring (in Electrical Engineering, Math, and Piano Performance – and graduating summa cum laude in four years) at Santa Clara University make her passionate about teaching students how to prioritize and organize their work, which is often half the battle for students! Anne’s mentorship is built on care, patience, and empathy. She strives to remember small details of her students’ lives and be on the student’s team, being flexible and accommodating yet pushing them to be the best they can be.

Anne uses everyday analogies to break down complex concepts, guides students through problems, then asks the student to explain the steps back to her. This inspires confidence and builds competence. She asks intentional questions along the way, establishing a structured problem-solving framework while allowing room for creativity in the process. She believes that each student brings a unique perspective and is constantly learning from them, too. At the end of each lesson, she spends time reflecting on the session with her students, celebrating the progress, learning from the mistakes, and looking ahead.

When Anne is not mentoring students, she can be found in the kitchen baking a new dessert or at the beach (or in the ocean if the weather is warm enough!). She also loves puzzling and exploring new cities.

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Pano Roditis

Pano Roditis grew up in Sacramento, California where he attended CSU Sacramento earning a B.A. in Theatre and a minor in Computer Science. At CSU Sacramento, Pano acted, stage-managed, and light and sound designed several productions; during his last year, he was given the annual Outstanding Student of the Department of Theatre and Dance award. Throughout his time at CSUS, Pano was also enrolled in the McNair Scholars Program, which seeks to prepare students to earn their PhDs. Pano conducted research culminating in an article, entitled El Macho: Analyzing the Effects of Machismo through Latin-American Playwriting and Dramaturgy, in which he analyzed the cultural ideals of machismo displayed within Latin theater productions. He then presented this research at several McNair conferences across the country including Baltimore, Atlanta, and Buffalo.

Pano plans on earning a PhD in Performance Studies in order to become a university professor and teach subjects such as Script Analysis and Theatre History, while also developing his skills as both an actor and a sound designer. With ESM Prep, Pano hopes to inspire students to achieve their full potential, just as his professors and mentors have done for him.