In Greek mythology, she is the goddess of war and wisdom. In Philadelphia's University City, Athena is a more earthly vessel, taking shape to make warriors of female entrepreneurs.

DreamIt Athena is a rare business accelerator, exclusively for companies with at least one female founder.

Announced this month and accepting applications until Dec. 8 at, the program to help women turn their ideas into fundable businesses with growth potential will launch in February with its first cycle of participants, a minimum of four companies. A second cycle is planned for spring 2016.

To qualify, applicants must have technology-based products or services with large market opportunity.

The program's name seemed a natural, said Karen Griffith Gryga, managing partner of DreamIt Funds, the equity arm of DreamIt Ventures, a top-tier accelerator that has launched 168 companies since its start in 2008. Of those, 40 were companies with female founders.

"Athena is the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration," Gryga said. "And whenever you're doing a start-up, you've got to have tremendous inspiration and vision, but also fortitude and courage. It's not easy to launch and build and develop a start-up."

Especially for women.

"We just felt it was time to do something about it," she said. "The answer is not more networking events."

Timing proved fortuitous. In the spring, DreamIt applied for funding from Pennsylvania's "Discovered in PA, Developed in PA" grant program and was approved in August for $491,000.

That's enough to finance two three-month cycles. The plan is to continue afterward, "but with a more commercial partner," said Gryga, who will oversee the Athena program with Patrick FitzGerald, managing director of DreamIt Ventures' Philadelphia program.

"There's just been an outpouring of support for it," said Gryga, who plans to conduct a national search for female CEOs and serial entrepreneurs willing to serve as mentors and inspiration.

To fill the post of project manager, DreamIt Athena's creators have hired a local woman described by a peer as "a real connector in the Philadelphia ecosystem" of female entrepreneurs.

Archna Sahay, a native of India now living in Center City, started the Female Founders Network in February to help women in business find one another.

A finance major at Virginia Tech, Sahay, 35, went on to work as a portfolio analyst and investment analyst at Wachovia and its successor, Wells Fargo, and then worked in the brokerage business for Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley.

Sahay left Morgan Stanley on Sept. 30 to focus on the Female Founders Network. But in just weeks, she had a job offer from DreamIt that seemed like divine intervention.

"I'm very spiritual," she said. "I always like to see God's hands in things."

As a believer that financial independence for women is "one of the most important things you could work on," and as a big sister who wants "to leave the world in just a slightly better place" for two younger ones, Sahay said the chance to help build what was believed to be the first female-oriented program by a top-tier accelerator feels like "what I was meant to do."

Her 12 years in finance - and some recent studies - left her convinced of the need for DreamIt Athena. Among those studies was a report by professors of Babson College in Massachusetts, "Women Entrepreneurs 2014: Bridging the Gender Gap in Venture Capital."

It found, in part, that though early-stage investment in companies with a woman on the executive team has tripled to 15 percent from 5 percent in the last 15 years, 85 percent of all venture-capital-funded businesses have no women on the executive team.

One reason for that, Sahay said, is another troubling finding by Babson: The total number of women partners in venture-capital firms has declined since 1999, dropping to 6 percent from 10 percent.

"There aren't enough women on the other side of that table," Sahay said.

When it comes to successfully pitching to investors, entrepreneurs need to connect with them. The sex divide is a serious obstacle, said Holly Flanagan, managing director at Gabriel Investments, a Philadelphia early-stage investment group.

"The challenge for women is they tend to solve problems that are faced by women," Flanagan said. "Because the majority of investors continue to be men, the advice I always give female founders is they have to articulate their story in a way that helps [all] investors feel the pain they are out to solve."

That message will be driven home at DreamIt Athena, Sahay said.

Among others applauding the effort is Yasmine Mustafa, founder of Roar for Good L.L.C., a young self-defense technology company.

"With greater inclusiveness," Mustafa said, "the opportunity to support the growing number of women founders creates even more possibilities for delivering transformative solutions - not to mention establishing more female role models, especially in predominantly male industries like technology."

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