Black History Month offers small businesses a big opportunity: not just to celebrate the achievements of African-Americans but to emphasize your company's commitment to creating and maintaining an inclusive workplace.

There are plenty of initial actions firms can take, such as sponsoring a speaker series featuring black experts in African-American studies or hosting a facilitated workshop on the subject of race and unconscious bias.

But while these are valuable first steps, Black History Month can be a launch pad for something more meaningful with impact lasting more than a month: harnessing the power of sponsorship to enable talented professionals of color to amplify and achieve their career ambitions.

As I explain in Forget A Mentor, Find A Sponsor, sponsorship can be a game changer. Sponsors provide qualified people with powerful advocacy, opening doors, promoting them for high-visibility stretch assignments, protecting them and persuading them to ask for the raises that translate into career mobility. Yet as the Center for Talent Innovation's research report, Vaulting the Color Bar: How Sponsorship Levers Multicultural Professionals into Leadership, points out, despite high levels of ambition and aspiration, only 9 percent of African-Americans have a sponsor. An astonishing 91 percent of African-Americans miss out on the opportunities that sponsorship can confer.

In creating initiatives to introduce and implement sponsorship programs, smaller firms can take a page from large corporations' playbook. For instance, Bank of America's Diverse Leader Sponsorship Program targets high-potential men and women of color in middle and senior management, the tipping points at which advocacy becomes crucial to promotion. Protégés are paired with senior leaders who have volunteered to be sponsors. The junior member of the pair is responsible for targeting the critical areas that will advance his or her career; the sponsors are expected to introduce their protégés to development opportunities and serve as an additional advocate to the protégé's direct manager. The program runs for nine months, during which the pairs meet formally and have monthly check-ins to explore their progress.

Sponsorship benefits everyone involved: Protégés acquire the tools, capabilities and connections they need to succeed; sponsors extend their own network of influence; and companies learn to recognize the talent that has been hiding in plain sight, then reap the rewards of greater engagement and retention. In short, sponsorship is the gift that keeps on giving. Now that's a meaningful way to commemorate Black History Month.