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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Bradford Harris

Bradford Harris was born and raised on the coast of Maine, where he developed a love for outdoor adventure. After high school, Brad moved to Costa Rica for six months to hike, raft, and teach English for the Turrialba school district. Although his original motivation for the trip was to explore Costa Rica’s exotic ecology, Brad’s experience teaching English turned out to be the most fulfilling part, and initiated his professional interest in education.

Upon returning to the United States, Brad attended Duke University to pursue an interdisciplinary focus on writing, chemistry, economics, and history.  His senior research thesis won high distinction in Duke’s Department of History, enabling him to enroll in Stanford University’s PhD program in the history of science and technology the following year. Throughout college and graduate school, Brad continued to seize teaching opportunities. He taught GRE classes for Kaplan Test Prep, privately tutored multiple adult education students in writing, worked as a teaching assistant for Stanford professors, and designed and taught his own course at Stanford on The Industrial Revolution. After finishing his PhD, Brad launched two history podcasts before joining ESM Prep as a college counselor.

Brad’s approach to college counseling combines rigorous planning, thoughtful writing, and levity to help students express their best self to college admissions. He insists on getting to know all of his students on their own terms in order to help align their college aspirations with their larger life goals. Brad firmly believes that an essential part of his job as a college counselor is to cultivate mindful personal growth, every step of the way. When he is not counseling, Brad enjoys history podcasting, cycling, skiing, and raising Arabian horses with his family.

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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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Brena Adams

Brena has a decade of tutoring experience. In 8th grade, she took the ACT out of curiosity and scored a composite score in the top 10 percent. With these results, she was able to begin college full time at 15 and earn her BS in Mathematics with a minor in Art when she turned 20.

While in college, she tutored all levels of math to her fellow college students, and she also taught College Algebra Co-Requisite Lab classes until she graduated.

After graduating, she added test prep to her tutoring repertoire, including the ACT, SAT, PSAT, GRE, SSAT, ISEE, SAT Subject Tests, and GRE, and continued to tutor upper-division math classes and high school level science classes. Brena loves finding new avenues to teach and share her passion, and during her 4 years as an adjunct instructor with the TRIO Veterans Upward Bound program at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, Brena taught English, Math, and Science courses for veterans seeking to go back to school and earn their Associate’s or Bachelor’s degrees.

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Phil Sommerfeld

Phil specializes in ACT and SAT preparation, as well as AP Physics, AP Calculus, AP Statistics, AP Chemistry, and other math and science subjects. He has spent countless hours mentoring students throughout the region, refining techniques and strategies for both the SAT and ACT. His knowledge allows him to target the individual needs of each one of his students with a mix of content review, test prep strategies, and confidence/intuition building. Phil’s thorough understanding of the material allows him to shore up even the smallest of problem areas in each section.

While studying physics and mathematics at the University of Alaska, Phil learned to appreciate the importance of a thorough understanding of the fundamental framework of any given subject.  It is always a priority of his to inspire a drive to deeply analyze any problem or concept that a student encounters.

Prior to moving to Sacramento, Phil lived in Fairbanks, Alaska where he attended college.  He enjoys mountain and road biking, playing soccer, hiking and backpacking, and keeping up with the latest developments in physics, astronomy, and mathematics.

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Edmund Tran

Edmund is a mentor specializing in mathematics and standardized test preparation for the ACT, SAT, ISEE, and SSAT. He has taught all middle and high school math subjects, up to statistics and AP Calculus BC. With official perfect scores in both the ACT and SAT, Edmund also guides students towards achieving their test prep goals.

Hailing from San Francisco, Edmund attended Lowell High School and went on to study economics, statistics, and computer science at UCLA. Volunteering for a summer camp and the Mentorship Program at UCLA cultivated a love for working with kids. He later earned a master’s degree in education with an option in mathematics and science teaching at CSULA, which included training under a mentor who was awarded LAUSD Teacher of the Year.

Math education is highly interconnected throughout all grades, with each level building upon the previous one. That’s why Edmund uses a very thorough teaching style that emphasizes conceptual mastery. He encourages students to question everything, so that they leave with a deep understanding of concepts and techniques that will serve them far beyond the next exam. Students also tap into his diverse work experience in fields ranging from actuarial science to computer networking and gain an appreciation for the many applications of math.

‍When he isn’t teaching, Edmund enjoys playing poker and board games, listening to hip-hop, and exploring all that the Bay Area has to offer.

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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.